A Rape by Any Other Name

Warning: This Post May Be Triggering for Some Readers

Reading Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold led me to consider the question of rape in romance. This is more a set of observations than a coherent essay, hence the numbers. Actually, this is a rant, and it’s probably a day late and a dollar short, but if a blogger can’t indulge in bully pulpit blogging from time to time, what’s the point?

0. This post isn’t about any and all rape in fiction. It’s about rape by the hero of the heroine in a romance novel, presented positively, or in such a way that the real harm of rape is minimized or ignored.

1. I spent some time reading online threads about Claiming the Courtesan, and about the Gaffney, and I noticed it’s hard to really have a good discussion about this because of all the red herrings.  So I want to say, in this first bit, that this is NOT about the following: censorship, labeling romance covers, or kicking people out of the genre.

2. Legally defining rape: it is a certain kind of nonconsensual sex. U.S. state laws vary, but generally, intercourse is rape if consent is invalidated because force is used or threatened, or the victim does not have the capacity to consent (either because s/he is drugged, intoxicated, unconscious, a child, or has a mental or physical disability).

3. Morally defining rape: I think there are more cases of immoral coercive sex than the law prohibits (which is not an argument to criminalize them: it’s wrong for a parent to belittle and demean her child, but I’m not advocating that she go to jail for it). The really hard thing is to figure out when persuasion becomes coercion. Using a gun is clearly coercive, but how about a mechanic threatening not to fix a woman’s car on the side of the road on a dark night unless she has sex with him (this is from Wertheimer’s Consent to Sexual Relations)? How about a really persistent seduction, gradually wearing down a woman’s defenses? We know roofies invalidate consent, but how about a few drinks?

I think many romance readers who distinguish “ravishment”, “forced seduction”, and “rape”, are wrestling with this question. I disagree with my fellow readers who think nonconsensual sex is ok sometimes, but have to ask myself what is going on when intelligent women who read romance-rapes are reluctant to label them so. Maybe these romance readers making nuanced moral judgments, rejecting the idea that all nonconsensual sex is equally bad, and maybe there’s something to that. I can’t settle this question for myself right now, but it’s given me a lot to think about.

4. What’s morally wrong with rape? Rape is psychologically and often physically harmful to the victim, both in the short term and long term: it is unjustified harm. Even if the victim is not harmed in those ways, rape is wrong for any number of other reasons, such as: the rapist violates the rights of the victim; fails to respect or give equal due to the victim; the rapist violates the bodily and personal integrity of the victim (this is why most women would prefer to get beaten up than raped), etc.

3. Defending rape in romance:

a) The Sexual Liberty Argument.

By writing coercive sex into romances, writers are providing grist for readers’ ravishment fantasies. We live in an age when sexual freedom is celebrated, and many women have rape fantasies.

b) The “It’s Just Fantasy and Women are Not Stupid” Argument

Women are not children who need to be protected from themselves. They recognize that real rape is bad. Reading abut rape in romance does not give women false beliefs about rape. They know this is fiction, and so it is not harmful.

4. Problems with rape in romance

I agree completely that sexual liberty is good, and I’m not suggesting we take anyone’s ability to write or read rape fantasies away. But the problem with the sexual liberty argument is that it ignores the fact that we live in a society (I sound like George Costanza: “WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY!!!…”) where the genders are not equal, and sexual relations between them reflect this inequality. So, in those conditions, I cannot agree that whatever women prefer is automatically to be celebrated. It’s not accidental that so many women have fantasies of being raped while men have fantasies of raping, is it? This way of looking at it takes gender completely out of the equation, which is like trying to study segregation without mentioning race.

The more interesting question for me is whether there are some expressions of sexual liberty that may not do much service to women given the society in which we live, where being female or male does actually impact your life in significant and not always just ways. Are there ways that rape in romance encourages the view of women as passive and deserving targets of male sexual aggression?

An example of this attempt to examine this question apart from the reality of gender and real rape is author Jenny Crusie’s comment that writing about a hitman does not encourage readers to become hitmen. Of course not. But the analogy isn’t apt at all. Rape is such a fraught topic for us because it’s a nonconsensual version of something that, when consensual, is universally experienced, and is considered one of the great goods of human existence, physically, mentally, and spiritually. And sex is deeply connected to gender and gender is deeply connected to identity and on and on…  Stories about hitmen don’t resonate with readers the way stories about rape do.

One of the things that I think is potentially harmful about romances which feature rape or ravishment approvingly is the perpetuation of rape myths. Many women and men believe these rape myths — like that if there’s no force, it isn’t rape; if you know or have had prior sexual relations with your attacker, it isn’t rape; if you change your mind mid encounter, it isn’t rape; if you experience physiological arousal, it isn’t rape; if the rapist wants you to enjoy it, is isn’t rape, etc. Studies have shown that rape myth acceptance makes men less likely to see rape as harmful and women less likely to see it as rape.

Do romantic rapes have this effect? This is an empirical question to which I do not have the answer, but it seems worth asking. Who knows? We might find that romanticizing rape actually has positive effects on our understanding of the effects of rape.

What about the argument that women aren’t stupid? That we aren’t going to be affected by what we read? Well, we’re affected by everything, in one way or another, often in ways we are not conscious of. There was a big debate a few years ago when the AMA banned even small gifts from industry to doctors. People used to say “Any physician that can be influenced by a gift of a pen is an idiot.” But then some researchers did some studies, and it turned out that those little gifts were demonstrably influential on physicians’ prescribing practices. I wasn’t too surprised by this, given the billions that Big Pharma pours into these pens, notepads and lunches. They ain’t doing it to be nice.

It is also said (kind of a combo of the two arguments above) that romance just supplies what women want. My initial response is, again, that everything we want is not good for us, and it’s worth asking which things really are good. Both writers and readers have choices. If I were a writer, I would want to ask myself if what I write could potentially be doing its tiny part in shoring up rape myths which create a culture in which rape is more acceptable than it should be, and weigh that against my artistic goals. As a consumer, I, too, have choices to make. I would like those choices to be as informed as possible, and that’s why I think having this discussion — and not unfairly shortcircuiting it with cries of censorship — is important.

But I also think the claim that the market determines what shows up on the shelves is very disingenuous, because the romance publishing community is very vocal and rightly proud about its power and pervasiveness, and about the good it does for women. But when someone wonders about responsibility for writing rape approvingly in romance, some people put their hands up and say “Hey lady, we’re just servants of the reader. Givin’ her what she wants.” As if they are putting a burger on a bun and handing it out the window.

I think this argument undercuts, also, the claim that romance is not worse, artistically, for being genre fiction. Remember when everyone got so mad when Hilzoy at the blog Obsidian Wings said romances are “not books”, but more like Hustler or chocolate? In my view, when some in the romance community refuses to even consider the question of whether some romances can just possibly, possibly, send any negative messages, they come very close to saying something like, “Hey! We’re not doing art here. We’re just having fun! Leave us alone!” So… should romance be taken seriously as a cultural force, and writers be taken seriously as artists  … or not?

I mentioned in my review of Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold that it bothers me when people suggest that the answer is just inserting warnings into reviews or labels on books, that “this book may be triggering for some people”. I know it comes from a place of concern, but here’s how it sounds to me: “Oh, are you squeamish about sexual assault? Poor sensitive you. You might want to stay away from this one. Now excuse us while we go on our merry way.”

What this does is take a host of legitimate concerns and delegitimizes them. It turns them into merely some readers’ personal “ick factor”, like it’s a matter of idiosyncratic personal taste that cannot be accounted for, like Anya’s silly and funny fear of bunnies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The problem with rape in romance becomes the problem that some sensitive readers just can’t stomach it, and how to help them steer clear of it.

Of course, it is true that some readers cannot stomach it. And that well may be because they have been victims of sexual assault. If 50 million US women a year read at least one romance, and 17 percent of US women experience a rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes … well, you can do the numbers. I think it’s worth asking, what are our responsibilities, if any, to help minimize this crime, and how do we discharge them? While I certainly do not have any answers, it seems to me that everyone in the romance community owes it to these women and to themselves to reflect carefully on the question.

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Published in: on September 24, 2008 at 12:43 am  Comments (45)  
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  1. Very thoughtful post. I agree that this subject is worth discussing.

    this is NOT about the following: censorship, labeling romance covers, or kicking people out of the genre.

    I think no matter how much you say that this is not about censorship, you will still get people who think that it is. The problem is that these discussions are read by authors and editors, and often influence the decisions they make. Also, if you look at the modern romance genre, there was a period (from the late seventies until the mid eighties) when hero/heroine rape was par for the course in the books. I remember reading an interview with author Jude Deveraux in which she said that she actually had to argue with her editors in order to not have the hero rape the heroine. It was almost mandated for writers that the had to include this type of scene.

    There then followed a period, in the late eighties and the nineties, when hero/heroine rape became less and less common. And in the past decade, hero/heroine rape has become so rare, at least in NY published books, that when one (such as Claiming the Courtesan) does appear, it causes a furor on the blogsphere and results in a flurry of attention to that book. I would venture to guess that it’s as hard to get a romance with a hero/heroine rape published by the major publishers now as it was to get a romance without a hero/heroine rape published back in 1980.

    Because of the nature of the romance industry, where trends wield a lot of influenced over what’s published, even when there is no intent to censor, the effect of perceived reader preferences can be very similar to censorship. I’m not saying that this means we shouldn’t have this discussion — I think it’s a worthy one and we should have it — but I am explaining why I think there will still be readers (especially among those who enjoy hero/heroine rapes and who have seen them become more and more marginalized) who will still see it as having a censoring effect.

    Speaking as a reader who has sometimes enjoyed some hero/heroine rapes and forced seductions (which I, and I think some other readers, define as nonconsensual foreplay that results in consensual intercourse), while disliking and sometimes even being horrified by other hero/heroine rapes and forced seductions, I have very mixed feelings about the effective disappearance of these books from the market. I don’t want authors to be forced to include h/h rapes in their books, but I also don’t want them to be forced to exclude them (and often discussions of this issue do make me feel that some would like to see such books excluded).

    Since I am now also a writer, I think it could be said that this concern is also writerly, except that I have no interest in writing anything where the hero rapes the heroine. I reserve the right to change my mind on that, though, and in the interest of full disclosure I will say that I have been thinking of possibly writing something where the heroine forcibly (well, somewhat) seduces the hero.

    I want to respond to the rest of the post now, but this post is long enough, so I think I will reply in seperate posts.

  2. […] will be triggering for some readers, and you can read all about why I loathe that expression in the this […]

  3. Re. legally defining rape vs. morally defining rape. I think these distinctions are important. I personally am always reluctant to use the word “rape” for anything that does not meet the legal definition of that word. The reason for my reluctance is that I have read (I forget where) that overuse of the word “rape” makes it more difficult to prosecute rapists in the courts. This happens because the frequency and casualness with which the word rape is used leads jurors to feel that many people “cry rape.” I take rape very seriously and think it should be prosecuted in the courts whenever possible and in order not to contribute to the problem of rapists getting off scot free, I try not to use the word where I don’t think the legal definition applies.

    Rape is psychologically and often physically harmful to the victim, both in the short term and long term: it is unjustified harm. Even if the victim is not harmed in those ways, rape is wrong for any number of other reasons, such as: the rapist violates the rights of the victim; fails to respect or give equal due to the victim; the rapist violates the bodily and personal integrity of the victim (this is why most women would prefer to get beaten up than raped), etc.

    Very well said. In my experience, rape is always psychologically and emotionally harmful. Every single one of my friends and acquaintances who have been raped, sexually abused or sexually assaulted (and unfortunately I know many) has been harmed psychologically and emotionally.

    It’s not accidental that so many women have fantasies of being raped while men have fantasies of raping, is it?

    Absolutely not. I think the fantasy is there precisely because rape is so common. People don’t choose their private sexual fantasies, though — I think that has to be recognized as well.

    In regard to the hero/heroine rape narrative in the romance genre, I feel that both for authors and for readers, it is often a way to take a painful situation in which they could be powerless in real life and transform it into a story in which the heroine ends up with power over the man who raped her. I very much see the trope itself and many of the stories that use it as attempts (whether successful or not) to recapture the power in the situation.

    Are there ways that rape in romance encourages the view of women as passive and serving targets of male sexual aggression?

    That is a very tough question to answer. Actually I think the only way to answer it would be to study pairs of identical twins raised in the same environment where one read romances and the other didn’t, and then assess their views of women. Otherwise, there are just so many factors both in environment and in biology which affect how we women view ourselves and how men view us that it is almost impossible to isolate one factor (reading romances with h/h rapes) from the rest.

    Many women and men believe these rape myths — like that if there’s no force, it isn’t rape; if you know or have had prior sexual relations with your attacker, it isn’t rape; if you change your mind mid encounter, it isn’t rape; if you experience physiological arousal, it isn’t rape; if the rapist wants you to enjoy it, is isn’t rape, etc. Studies have shown that rape myth acceptance makes men less likely to see rape as harmful and women less likely to see it as rape.

    Well, for what little it’s worth, I started reading romances with h/h rapes when I was 13 years old, and I don’t believe any of these rape myths described above to be true.

    There was a big debate a few years ago when the AMA banned even small gifts from industry to doctors. People used to say “Any physician that can be influenced by a gift of a pen is an idiot.” But then some researchers did some studies, and it turned out that those little gifts were demonstrably influential on physicians’ prescribing practices.

    I’m not sure that this analogy is more accurate than the one about the hit men. I see some merits in both analogies but at the same time neither one seems completely accurate.

    Both writers and readers have choices. If I were a writer, I would want to ask myself if what I write could potentially be doing its tiny part in shoring up rape myths which create a culture in which rape is more acceptable than it should be, and weigh that against my artistic goals.

    I hear you. As a writer, I don’t know if I could write a scene in which the hero rapes the heroine. I know too many people who have been sexually assaulted at least at this point, I think it would be very hard for me to write it. I reserve the right to change my mind, though, because my experience with creativity is that it usually tries to find the cracks in whatever walls are imposed on it and flow out through those cracks.

    But when someone wonders about responsibility for writing rape approvingly in romance, some people put their hands up and say “Hey lady, we’re just servants of the reader. Givin’ her what she wants.”

    In the eight years I’ve been part of the online romance community, I have never heard an author say this about rape in romance. Could you point me in the direction of that statement?

    In my view, when some in the romance community refuses to even consider the question of whether some romances can just possibly, possibly, send any negative messages, they come very close to saying something like, “Hey! We’re not doing art here. We’re just having fun! Leave us alone!” So… should romance be taken seriously as a cultural force, and writers be taken seriously as artists … or not?

    I used to get frustrated by this too, but I’ve come to believe that there will never be consensus on that. Some writers want the genre to get taken seriously as art, with all that implies, and some don’t. The people saying “We’re not doing art here” aren’t necessarily the same ones who say they want the genre to be taken seriously.

    Also, genre writers write under different conditions from say, writers of literary fiction, with much tighter deadlines, for example, and that makes harder to produce art and to even have time to think about what, if any, the ethical goals of a work of fiction ought to be. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t think about this, just that the conditions for such reflectiveness aren’t always present.

  4. Janine,

    I am flat out today but I wanted to acknowledge your wonderful contributions to my thinking on this issue. Getting to hear from people who know more than I do about this genre and are willing to share it with me is one of the best things about having this blog. It’s like putting on a conference without having to pick anybody up at the airport!

    I will have more to say later, but here are three quick things:

    1. The analogy to pens and doctors is not good in the sense that Big Pharma is intentionally trying to convince doctors to do something and writers of romance are not. But I was only using the analogy to make the point that being subconsciously influenced by certain narratives does not mean women are idiots: even the smartest and most self aware humans are influenced in just this way all of the time. Moreover, the narratives in question are especially potent and powerful in our society for a lot of historical, and perhaps even evolutionary reasons. This is not “just another story” in our culture.

    2. On the question of where I read “Hey Lady, we’re just giving the reader what she wants”, I can think of one place off the bat which is Ms. Crusie’s post on her blog last year (I will find the link later) where she, of course, is too intelligent to put it in those crude terms, but says something along the lines of : this is a reader driven market much more so than many others, and rape wouldn’t be getting published if it didn’t sell. To me, that doesn’t quite cut it in terms of responsibly addressing the issue. [Just to be clear: This is not Ms. Crusie’s only argument. She makes the two other arguments discussed in the post: that it’s women’s free choice, and that it doesn’t harm anyone.]

    3. (Ugh. I have GOT to get in the shower!! Damn you magnetically appealing blogging activity!) When I put in those numbers at the end, I realized that we can’t say 17% of romance readers have been raped, because we don’t know what percentage of rape victims read romances. That would be interesting to know: how the experience of sexual assault changes one’s attitude to the genre, if it does (and not just because of the fear fo stumbling on a rape in the text, but maybe influence on attitudes about romance in general).

    But another interesting number was that sexual assault of women has gone down dramatically since the 1990s, and I believe romances have been selling more and more during the same period. That’s what made me make the comment that for all we know, romances have a positive effect. (Or, no discernible effect, just funny correlations. Who knows. Certainly not me. I wouldn’t know what to do with data if I bathed in it.)

    But then I read that rates of rape of men (by both men and women) have gone up during the same period, while male readership of romance has gone up, so there went that theory! But those numbers, about men were so intriguing that I’m working on another post on that one — rape of men in romance.

    More later! But thank you again!!

  5. I came up with another, complementary, explanation of why there might be rapist heroes, but it got rather long, so I thought it would be simpler and easier to read if I turned it into a blog post. Hope you don’t mind. It’s here.

    It goes to show that I can take myself out of medievalism, but there’s no way to take the medievalism out of me.

  6. It’s like putting on a conference without having to pick anybody up at the airport!

    LOL. I love these types of discussions too.

    I wanted to add a clarification to my first post, which is to say that the trends of h/h rapes in the past decades that I referred to mostly apply to single title historical romances, which were the bulk of the romances I read as a teenager. I have the impression that things were somewhat different with single title contemporary romances, category romances, and traditional regencies.

    1. The analogy to pens and doctors is not good in the sense that Big Pharma is intentionally trying to convince doctors to do something and writers of romance are not. But I was only using the analogy to make the point that being subconsciously influenced by certain narratives does not mean women are idiots: even the smartest and most self aware humans are influenced in just this way all of the time.

    Good point. I think another area where these two situations are not directly analogous is that women choose to read romances, and some even seek out the h/h rapes and forced seductions. Whereas doctors don’t seek out those pens. It’s quite possible in some cases at least that readers already have these rape fantasies and are choosing to read about similar scenarios because that’s what turns them on. So it may be a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

    That doesn’t mean that the books aren’t influencing their belief systems (they may or may not be, I don’t know), but I think it’s a different situation when one seeks out the potentially influencing material on one’s own.

    Moreover, the narratives in question are especially potent and powerful in our society for a lot of historical, and perhaps even evolutionary reasons. This is not “just another story” in our culture.

    I agree on that. But I also think this goes back to the question of art and morality that we discussed earlier with Gaugin and Leni Riefenstahl as examples. The artist does, IMO have a moral responsibility to weigh the effects of their actions, just like any other human being. But what if one produce’s art with this trope, art that gives people joy and happiness and hope, like the Gaffney book does for me? Or to use another example, let’s take Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan,” since I think more literary critics would probably agree it has artistic merits. Should we wish that Yeats had not produced it because he made something rather beautiful out of a brutal act?

    2. On the question of where I read “Hey Lady, we’re just giving the reader what she wants”, I can think of one place off the bat which is Ms. Crusie’s post on her blog last year (I will find the link later) where she, of course, is too intelligent to put it in those crude terms, but says something along the lines of : this is a reader driven market much more so than many others, and rape wouldn’t be getting published if it didn’t sell. To me, that doesn’t quite cut it in terms of responsibly addressing the issue. [Just to be clear: This is not Ms. Crusie’s only argument. She makes the two other arguments discussed in the post: that it’s women’s free choice, and that it doesn’t harm anyone.]

    I think I read that blog of Crusie’s a long time ago, but my memory of it is fuzzy. Still, I don’t think that saying that the genre is market-driven is the same thing as shaking off responsibility and saying “I’m just giving the reader what she wants.” The first statement is about the entire genre, collectively, which is a force that no single author can control. The second statement is about one’s own actions. It may be naive of me, but I have a hard time imagining authors being so cavalier about this issue as to dismiss their personal responsibility with this type of statement alone.

    But another interesting number was that sexual assault of women has gone down dramatically since the 1990s, and I believe romances have been selling more and more during the same period.

    I think the 1990s was when h/h rapes were starting to fade from historical romances. When THATH came out in 1995, it was controversial right then. Had it been published in 1982, I don’t think most readers would have blinked an eye. What this makes me wonder is if the books reflect the social trends and cultural zeitgeist of their times.

    But then I read that rates of rape of men (by both men and women) have gone up during the same period, while male readership of romance has gone up, so there went that theory! But those numbers, about men were so intriguing that I’m working on another post on that one — rape of men in romance.

    That is interesting because, while rape of heroes in romance is less common than rape of heroines, I think there was a while there in the early 1990s when I came across books in which the hero had been raped or sexually abused (interestingly, they had the word “shadow” in the title — The Shadow and the Star, Silk and Shadows, Shadow Play…)

  7. Laura, I thought your post at Teach Me Tonight was very interesting and I replied there, with some comments I almost made here yesterday. (You guys are making me think I should also write something up for Dear Author, but this is a really busy time for me and I don’t think I’d have time between now and the end of November for the number of comments such a topic might generate over there. Maybe in December sometime).

  8. I will attempt to post despite the efforts of Backup Cat to eat the mouse while I’m using it.

    I found this blog by following the dainty footprints of Laura Vivanco; and I find your questions very interesting–perhaps more so than any possible answers.

    I have another question: I think anyone reading this would agree that there is nothing “romantic” about the rape of a nine-year-old. What suddenly changes when the victim is nineteen or twenty-nine?

    Also, there is the whole issue of “date rape,” which some men refuse to acknowledge exists. There have been a number of cases where the victim has later been called by her rapist asking for another date.

  9. I have another question: I think anyone reading this would agree that there is nothing “romantic” about the rape of a nine-year-old. What suddenly changes when the victim is nineteen or twenty-nine?

    I’ll bite. What changes is the power differential. A nine year old is so much smaller, weaker, more vulnerable, more easily traumatized, powerless, and not even able to give consent under any circumstances, that the thought of an adult having sex with one is revolting to most people.

    However, I don’t think such an argument is empowering to women. If we have to compare ourselves to nine year olds and imagine ourselves that powerless to make the case that rape isn’t romantic, then something is really wrong IMO.

    But I don’t think anyone here thinks real life rape is romantic, regardless of the victim’s age. What we are discussing here is rape fantasies and fictional represenations of rape, which take place in the realm of the imagination rather than in reality, and to my mind, that is not the same thing.

  10. Talpianna,

    That’s a good question. The claim that rape can be portrayed approvingly in romance, because:

    (a) Authors are free to write whatever they want, and
    (b) Some people fantasize about rape, and who are we to deny them this?, and
    (c) Readers are smart enough to know that real rape causes real harms, so they won’t be more encouraged to adopt beliefs that lead to greater acceptance of rape, and perhaps greater incidence of it

    Works pretty well, mutatis mutandis, as we say in the biz, for pedophilia, doesn’t it?

    Of course, women CAN consent to sex, while children, by definition cannot.

    Janine,

    Thanks again for your comments!

  11. I remember, back in the day, reading some romances where the heroines were quite young, including a few where the sex might qualify as stautory rape had those books been set in contemporary times (but they were all historical). The youngest heroine I remember in a romance was the one in Rebecca Brandewyne’s War of the Roses era romance Rose of Rapture, and she was thirteen when she met the hero and fourteen when they married and had sex. IIRC the hero was about a decade older. I personally found this disturbing but I have a friend who liked the book.

    Another book that features what we now call stautory rape is Jacqueline Briskin’s Paloverde. This is not a romance but a family saga. It covers with a couple of generations. One of the romances within this story, begins in the late nineteenth century (the book takes place in Los Angeles) and the cental female character of that part of the story is fifteen year old when she becomes romantically and sexually involved with a man in his twenties. This book I enjoyed and found romantic in places, maybe because the heroine (since it’s not a romance I’m not sure if “heroine” is the right term) was strong willed and was the one to initiate the sex.

    I was a teenager when I first read these books myself.

    Waiting to duck rotten tomatoes now…

  12. I don’t have any tomatoes, being at work at the moment, but I do have three instructors’ copies of Feminist Frameworks that would do an even better job!

  13. LOL. It wasn’t you I was preparing to duck from, but rather some unknown person in the ether. Having been likened to a KKK member for enjoying To Have and to Hold, I always feel a little apprehensive when posting my views on these topics.

    I see two books called Feminist Frameworks on Amazon — one by Lisa Price and one by Jagger and Rothenberg. Would this be the one by Price? People near and dear to me have been victims of rape and pedophilia so I know how horrific and harrowing these indefensible crimes are, yet my ability to enjoy *some* of these controversial romances remains unaffected most of the time, so I don’t think a non-fiction book would affect it, either.

    But I keep wanting to come back to the topic of art and morality. While I do think it’s very important for artists to think about moral issues, I don’t equate that to mean that all romances with hero/heroine rapes are unethical. It’s sliding down a slippery slope to say that, IMO, because it’s easy to go from that to saying that any romance in which the relationship begins in an unhealthy place, or in which one of the characters hurts the other in any way, is also unethical.

    All novels require some amount of conflict, and most good ones require some kind of arc for the main characters. In the romance genre, where the happy ending is currently requisite, that arc almost always needs to be a growth arc. In order to grow, they have to start from a place that is less healthy and happy than the one they ultimately end up in.

    Depending on how one looks at it, one could say that a book in which a relationship begins in an unhealthy place and then grows into a healthier one is unethical, because it encourages people to remain in unhealthy relationships, or one could say it is healthy, because it shows people that growth is possible and encourages their own personal growth.

    Therefore, I don’t know that it’s possible to arrive on a simple definition of what ethical fiction is. I think it has to be taken on a book-by-book basis. There are some books in which the heroines simply enjoy being raped, and rape is portrayed as a blissful experience. I don’t find much literary merit in the books I’ve read that fit that description.

    To Have and to Hold, on the other hand, does seem to me to have a lot of literary merit, and it also strikes me as a book that is at its core, deeply concerned with morality. Sebastian’s character arc in the first half of the book is a great moral struggle; he is torn, almost from the moment he first sees Rachel, between wanting to (as he himself puts it) “save her” and wanting to “push her to her limit.”

    IMO, he is torn about her because he is torn about himself, torn between wanting to save himself and self-destruction. Rachel and her situation in the first courtroom scene serve as a mirror for him and a test for him. So he makes her his guinea pig and keeps using her to test himself over and over. What are her limits? What are his own? Which will he do, will he save her or destroy her? Will he save himself or destroy whatever speck of goodness may be left in his soul in the process? In a way, it is the test we all face, every day — the test between making the moral, ethical choices that build character, or the selfish ones that ultimately destroy our souls.

    In a way, it is also a choice that every artist faces — how to walk a moral line. All art requires selfishness, though maybe not always as much as Gaugin’s did. But art takes time away from families, and often artists use the lives of people they know in crafting their art. One can’t even attempt to produce art, without at times being selfish and even ruthless, and yet the goal for the ultimate end product is to bring joy not just to oneself but to other people as well.

    Maybe it’s not all that different a dilemma than the one that anyone faces in any job. If I work for a factory that makes gadgets and pollutes the air in the process, is that unethical? On the one hand, the gadgets may be useful, and people may enjoy them, and the factory provides job which puts food on the table. But on the other hand, the air is polluted and maybe the water too — small animals might even die as a result, and maybe it affects, minutely, things like the fertility of the population. It can be argued, of course, that if people didn’t want the gadgets and didn’t buy them, they wouldn’t exist, but that doesn’t really fully answer the question of morality.

    I think THATH is a book that attempts, with the character of Sebastian, to dramatize the moral conflicts we all face. Sure, Gaffney could have made Sebastian the owner of a coal mine instead of a rapist (she does that with the heroine of Forever & Ever), but I think that if she had, the moral struggle would not be nearly as dramatic and the core message I feel the book has, which is that making the moral choice over the selfish one is not only possible no matter how selfish we’ve been in the past, it is also rewarding, would not be nearly as powerful.

    So it seems to me that to look at the book only through the lens of one issue, the fact that the hero rapes the heroine and how that may influence rape myths, and not consider what Gaffney did with Sebastian’s character arc, and what messages that aspect of the book may have, is to see it through just one of its aspects, when it is the whole that has to be considered.

    I think that with any work (whether a work of art or a factory gadget) one has to consider the whole and weigh both the negatives and the positives.

    Which is also my way of saying that while as a writer, I may not want to write a hero/heroine rape, it would be hypocritical and dishonest of me to say that I don’t want other writers to ever write them, when in fact I’ve gotten so much out of Gaffney’s book.

  14. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was not unusual for marriages of state and other important alliances to be consummated when the bride was as young as 12; I assume they at least waited till she had begun her menses.

    Art and morality can be an odd couple. Remember the controversy over Bret Easton Ellis’s vicious and violent novel AMERICAN PSYCHO? The original publisher backed out of the deal, and the one that picked it up edited it. But it was successful, and the film version was acclaimed.

    Now this, from VARIETY:

    ‘American Psycho’ heads to stage
    Musical adaptation in development
    By GORDON COX

    A musical adaptation is planned for Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho,’ which was previously made into a film starring Christian Bale.

    An ’80s-tinged tuner adaptation of “American Psycho” has begun the development process and is aiming for Broadway.

    Legit version of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel, about a 1980s Wall Street banker who is also a serial killer, will come from the Johnson-Roessler Co., management-production company the Collective and XYZ Films. The three shingles have partnered to acquire the rights to develop and produce the stage incarnation.

    “Psycho” was previously adapted into a 2000 Lionsgate pic that starred Christian Bale.

    Development team has just begun the selection process for creatives to pen the score and the book. No timeline has been set for what is envisioned as a large-scale musical.

    Graphically bloody novel, which juxtaposes Reagan-era decadence and gruesome killings, includes prominent references to bands of the era, a fact that contributed to the idea of musicalizing the story. Sounds of the time will influence the new show’s score.

    Current economic woes have prodded producers to put the tuner on the fast track.

    “Now in particular it seems relevant, especially given what’s happening on Wall Street,” said David Johnson of Johnson-Roessler.

    A former senior exec at MGM, Johnson paired with former MGM TV exec Craig Roessler to hang the Johnson-Roessler shingle in 2006. “Psycho” is the org’s first legit project.

    What’s next? SHOAH: THE MUSICAL?

  15. American Psycho is a great example of art and morality clashing.

    As to marriage in the middle ages… I have no clue. Oh where is our resident medievalist when we need her??

    Janine — I’ll have more later, but for now I wanted to agree that you’re right, it does matter how important the rape is in book and how it’s related to the other merits in the book. Just throwing in a rape to titillate the reader is perhaps different from a rape which, as in THATH, is so central to the development of the relationship.

    Later — and here’s more:

    LOL. It wasn’t you I was preparing to duck from, but rather some unknown person in the ether. Having been likened to a KKK member for enjoying To Have and to Hold, I always feel a little apprehensive when posting my views on these topics.

    Since only about 5 people read my blog, I think you are safe here.

    I see two books called Feminist Frameworks on Amazon — one by Lisa Price and one by Jagger and Rothenberg.

    It’s the latter — but it doesn’t have good articles on what we are discussing. Hey, maybe I should have a contest where I give away Fminist Frameworks, bundled with Claiming the Courtesan!

    But I keep wanting to come back to the topic of art and morality. While I do think it’s very important for artists to think about moral issues, I don’t equate that to mean that all romances with hero/heroine rapes are unethical. It’s sliding down a slippery slope to say that, IMO, because it’s easy to go from that to saying that any romance in which the relationship begins in an unhealthy place, or in which one of the characters hurts the other in any way, is also unethical.

    I think you’ve made a good case for saying not all rapes in romance are unethical — maybe just the ones that portray rape in a favorable way, meant to titillate, that aren’t necessary to the story.

    But I’m not worried about slippery slopes: I tend to be able to make a point and stick there.

    Plus, I don’t want to say a romance is unethical. People make choices, and some of those choices are unethical.

    Therefore, I don’t know that it’s possible to arrive on a simple definition of what ethical fiction is. I think it has to be taken on a book-by-book basis. There are some books in which the heroines simply enjoy being raped, and rape is portrayed as a blissful experience. I don’t find much literary merit in the books I’ve read that fit that description

    Nothing in ethics in simple, in my view. But I agree completely with what you say here.

    In a way, it is the test we all face, every day — the test between making the moral, ethical choices that build character, or the selfish ones that ultimately destroy our souls.

    I agree, and readers also have a choice of whether to enjoy something that may be degrading for them, and may contribute to the degradation of their sisters, in the name of entertainment.

    In a way, it is also a choice that every artist faces — how to walk a moral line. All art requires selfishness, though maybe not always as much as Gaugin’s did. But art takes time away from families, and often artists use the lives of people they know in crafting their art. One can’t even attempt to produce art, without at times being selfish and even ruthless, and yet the goal for the ultimate end product is to bring joy not just to oneself but to other people as well.

    Erm … yes. But where are the internet blog police who prevent commenters from saying things that are more insightful and more beautifully written than the original posts? That’s what I would really like to know.

    Maybe it’s not all that different a dilemma than the one that anyone faces in any job. If I work for a factory that makes gadgets and pollutes the air in the process, is that unethical? On the one hand, the gadgets may be useful, and people may enjoy them, and the factory provides job which puts food on the table. But on the other hand, the air is polluted and maybe the water too — small animals might even die as a result, and maybe it affects, minutely, things like the fertility of the population. It can be argued, of course, that if people didn’t want the gadgets and didn’t buy them, they wouldn’t exist, but that doesn’t really fully answer the question of morality.

    Whoa Nelly! Let’s get those reins in! There is really no one “Question of Morality”, only a lot of specific really hard and interconnected ones, as you show here. But recognizing this interconnectedness doesn’t take away the fact that when you write a romance, you have a choice whether to include a rape scene in it, and further choices about how to portray rape. You DO have control over those choices, and it is your responsibility to reflect on what you are doing.

    I think THATH is a book that attempts, with the character of Sebastian, to dramatize the moral conflicts we all face. Sure, Gaffney could have made Sebastian the owner of a coal mine instead of a rapist (she does that with the heroine of Forever & Ever), but I think that if she had, the moral struggle would not be nearly as dramatic and the core message I feel the book has, which is that making the moral choice over the selfish one is not only possible no matter how selfish we’ve been in the past, it is also rewarding, would not be nearly as powerful

    Really? It think maybe this is the question. We all get mad when romance authors take shortcuts. The dying child is one emotionally manipulative example. Instead of good writing, things get thrown in that the author knows will get a quick emotional charge out of the reader. If Gaffney wasn’t trying to titillate with the rape scenes, perhaps she could be “accused” if that’s the right word, of doing this? It trivializes rape and doesn’t serve the story. And this actually folds the moral concern back into the overarching artistic concerns. (I actually don’t think this is true of Gaffney, but I can’t think of an example off the bat.)

    So it seems to me that to look at the book only through the lens of one issue, the fact that the hero rapes the heroine and how that may influence rape myths, and not consider what Gaffney did with Sebastian’s character arc, and what messages that aspect of the book may have, is to see it through just one of its aspects, when it is the whole that has to be considered.

    I agree with you, and that’s why my review of THATH did not do this. No where do I recommend evaluating works of art solely based on whether the authors appear to approve of actions that the reader disapproves of. I’d have to get rid of a lot of wonderful things that way!

    But I do think I can look at one specific thing, say the use of rape in romance to sexually arouse the reader, or its exploitative use as an emotional shortcut, and say, “Hey. This is a significant evil in our lives today, and in many readers’ lives, that you seem not to have given a thought to. A different choice could have been and probably should have been made here.” Yes, I am making a moral judgment. It may be wrong, but it’s more than an assertion of my personal preference (and sometimes my moral judgments and personal preferences do not coincide at all, unfortunately. Whether this is the case for me and romance is TBD).

    It may seem like I am placing art below ethics, making it subservient, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paradoxically, this all comes out of my belief that art, and especially fiction, are central to living a life that can accurately be described as “human”. I’m committed to the ethical value of fiction, the crucial importance of fiction (and narrative of all kinds) in our moral development and moral understandings. Stories are how we learn, discover, share, revise, and communicate values, and I am interested in just which values are being communicated by specific texts in romance fiction.

  16. You know, it seems to me that the rape fantasies of the 70s and 80s got popular on the heels of Nancy Friday’s books (My Secret Garden, 1973; Forbidden Flowers, 1975; Men in Love, 1980) about sexual fantasy (particularly women’s).

    I don’t KNOW if there’s a connection there, but I could be persuaded to bet on it.

  17. Mojo,

    I don’t know any of those books, but you may be on to something.

    It’s interesting to consider what causes trends like rape in romance to come and go — or even how often rapes have to appear to constitute a trend at all.

  18. Good post and interesting discussion but I am afraid I fall squarely into the category of people who immediately think Censorship! when I read this and that makes me feel far more worried than the illustration of rape or borderline rape in a romance novel.

    For me, one of the great things about the romance genre is its ability to explore some quite subtle and nuanced – and yes, transgrssive – ideas about relationships and power dynamics. It’s not ‘real’ and its not an expression of the reader or writer’s fundamental beliefs. It’s a story which the reader is free to assess as they like. And I don’t think readers should be dictated to as to how they should receive a book.

    The reality is that relationships and sex are ALL ABOUT power dynamics and consent and communication and so on. That’s why romance is interesting to me. That’s why its compelling. A romance novel is not – or shouldn’t be as far I’m concerned – be a statement of what is or is not morally right. It’s an exploration of the feelings of the characters for one another. And I don’t want that to be censored.

    I do like your blog. I’ve added you to my favourites.

  19. As to marriage in the middle ages… I have no clue. Oh where is our resident medievalist when we need her??

    I was scouring the second-hand shops for out-of-print Mills & Boons. 😉

    As far as marriage and sexuality in the Middle Ages are concerned, I’d suggest consulting Brundage. The page I’ve linked to gives the age of twelve as the legal minimum age for marriage, and that’s the age I’ve come across in my reading. I really concentrated on literature of various sorts, and ideas about death, so I didn’t come across anything about the actual ages at which marriages were usually consummated. Virginia, who recently wrote a guest-blog for TMT, would be a better person to ask, because she’s spent more time researching the realities of marriage in the past, but I don’t know if she’s ever visited this blog.

  20. Art and morality can be an odd couple.

    I don’t think it’s just art though, I think it’s any human endeavor. I think we may be more sensitive to it with art because we expect great artists to be more sensitive than the average person, when often the reality is that other than in their ability to create something that moves us, they are not particularly better than anyone else.

    The point of what I said about the gadgets though is that it’s very difficult to avoid doing some kind of harm so it’s often only a matter of degree and of what kind of harm one does. It is easy, I think, for people not to think about the harm they do, since if we were all to think of the harm we each do every day (think of the amount of garbage we produce, the animals and even plants that die so we can eat them, the carbon dioxide we exhale, the sewers that rise up wherever human beings live!) we could become paralyzed or even lose our sanity. I’m not saying we oughtn’t to think about the harm we do, but that the thinking has to be balanced against other considerations as well, otherwise we will all do a lot of thinking, but not very much creating. I think it’s the fear of that kind of creative paralysis that causes some writers to dismiss issues like hero/heroine rapes with quick and simple arguments like some of the ones Jessica referred to in this post.

    There’s a great line in E.M. Forster’s romantic novel, A Room with a View, where the character of Mr. Emerson says:

    “We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm–yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”

    I’ve always loved that bit of dialogue, yet I think it’s full of paradoxes. First Mr. Emerson says that the shadow follows us everywhere, so “it is no good moving from place to place to save things.” Then he says “choose a place where you won’t do harm,” but he amends it to “very much harm,” and then he ends on “stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”

    I take this to mean that casting a shadow can’t be avoided, yet we should try to cast it where it will do the least damage, and then, make the most out of our lives. It’s a beautiful metaphor, but not easy advice to follow.

    To get back to specific examples of controversial art, I have never read American Psycho or seen the film adaptation of it, and so I’m reluctant to offer an opinion on that controversy, but I did read Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel, Less than Zero, which was about bored and jaded college students, when I was 18 or so, and my impression at the time was that it was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. The characters all seemed morally bankrupt and emotionally numb; I could not relate to their perpetual ennui, which, if memory served, never altered. I recoiled from the thought of reading any more of his books, which is why I never read American Psycho, even though when I was young I had a lot of more tolerance for violence than I do today (I used to love books like Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs and Fowles’ The Collector; I’m now afraid to reread them).

    Ellis was very young when he wrote Less than Zero, but in response to the book he was haled as the first great writer of his generation by some literary critics, whose opinion I couldn’t fathom. Several years later Donna Tartt, a classmate of Ellis’s at Bennington College, came out with The Secret History, a novel about college students who kill a fellow student to cover up another crime, and I found it much more concerned with moral isssues, more resonant and more deeply felt, than Less than Zero. But I have to admit these two books made me wonder what kind of place Bennington College might be!

    What’s next? SHOAH: THE MUSICAL?

    IIRC, in the movie “The Producers” (the first version) the main characters produce a musical called “Springtime for Hitler.”

    Actually, I don’t know if you’ve seen Roberto Benigni’s Italian movie “Life is Beautiful,” but it was quite controversial because it’s first half was lighthearted while it’s second half was set in a concentration camp. I believe it won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes film festival as well as several Oscars, yet many people felt that it trivialized the Holocaust. I liked the movie very much, even though my grandmother lost most of her family in the Holocaust when she was just sixteen. I understood and sympathized with the outrage of people who felt differently about this film. It again falls into the category of something that I don’t know if I would attempt, even though I think it has artistic merit.

  21. Hey! I may not live here, but I AM a medievalist! I’ll take on Laura any day with Child Ballads at 20 paces!

  22. SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER is a parody; and the whole point of it is that it is designed to fail, because the producers have swindled the backers.

    The musical version of AMERICAN PSYCHO (a story which features rape and mutilation murders in great detail) is apparently done straight. I’ve seen the documentary SHOAH, and I don’t think I’ll ever entirely get over it.

  23. I AM a medievalist! I’ll take on Laura any day with Child Ballads at 20 paces!

    You could whack me in the face with a metaphorical gauntlet and I still wouldn’t want to fight a duel with you, Tal. Instead I’ll build myself a nice, safe hermit’s cell out of medieval Castilian chronicles, the Siete Partidas, a translation of the Summa Theologica, and copies of the Arte de bien morir and the Danza de la muerte.

  24. Oops — Talpianna, I did not mean to slight you. I had no idea you are also a medievalist. How could I? I mean, really, what are the chances that of the 6 commenters on this thread fully 1/4 are medievalists? I won’t make that mistake again!

    From now on, I will assume everyone who visits my blog is a medievalist until proven otherwise.

    Laura — Thanks for taking time out of your M&B hunt to offer your views on medieval times and that helpful link.

    Janine– Thanks, as usual, for your comments. I love that quote from Forster! Perhaps its ego, but I do like to think people can do more than avoid harm (they can actually do good). Of course, the issue isn’t harm per se, but immoral harm.

    The fact that we cause all kinds of harm is exactly why I think it’s good to try to be reflective about what we do, as writers and readers, and make choices that minimize harm without, as you say, sacrificing other goods that may trump the small amount of harm we cause. But of course you are right that we can’t spend our lives reflecting all the time: we must act. I think we agree in substance, if not in tone.

    We must be close in age — I read Less than Zero at 18 or 19 also, and today I am much more sensitive to violence in literature and film. I pinpoint my own change to the birth of my first child.

    I remember vividly showing a film to my students, one I had shown many times with no emotion. An infant is thoughtlessly abandoned in the final scene. Sitting in the dark with my students, I began to sob — this is the one and only time this has happened in 10 years of teaching — and could not stop. I had to excuse myself!

    Tumperkin — thank you for visiting! You and Janine have made persuasive arguments that I cannot bracket the censorship question, and I admit I was wrong about that. I had been thinking “legal” censorship, but of course, there are many types of soft censorship.

    I like your point about the transgressive nature of some romance. The fact that there are transgressive elements in romance was one of the most happily surprising things to me when I started reading it.

    But I don’t think romantic rapes are transgressive. (Some feminists, notably the late Andrea Dworkin, are famous for thinking the power differentials between women and men in a patriarchal society are such that consent can never be given by women to sex with men, making all sexual intercourse rape. If that’s right, the transgressive act would be consensual sexual intercourse. I don’t agree with her, but it’s a thought provoking argument).

    I also think it’s an interesting question which transgressions are good and which aren’t. Pedophilia is transgressive, as is bestiality. As usual, I don’t have any answers here. but since I think most of the battle is asking the right questions, I feel like I’m making progress thanks to all of you!

  25. Laura, I’ll figure out a way into your cell using the mathematical theories of Ramon Llull.

    Perhaps the result will be, as happened a couple of times in THE FAERIE QUEENE, that I will be so stunned by your beauty that I will drop my sword (or ballad book) and fall on my knees before you in wonder and adoration.

    Strictly speaking, by the way, I am half medievalist and half Renaissancelist (like a chimera, only smelling better), as my subject of choice is “the Renaissance heroic epic in the medieval allegorical context.” Spenser was my specialty.

    Perhaps each would-be poster here should have to fill out a questionnaire to determine her level of medievalism. Sort of like Warwick the Kingmaker’s application form in 1066 AND ALL THAT: Are you Roger Mortimer? If not, have you got him?

  26. I’ve finally got a few minutes to reply to you, Jessica.

    But I’m not worried about slippery slopes: I tend to be able to make a point and stick there.

    I guess the reason I do worry about it is that there are often objections from one or more people in the online romance community whenever a relationship in a romance begins in a less than fully healthy place. The fact is that human relationships are often not perfect, and if romance is to have any verisimilitude and diversity, it has to reflect some of those human imperfections at times. In fact, writing manuals often tell the beginning writer that conflict is what makes a book dramatic. Yet someone on the internet will pipe up with an objection nearly every time that’s the case. I think writers learn to tune out those objections — very often I hear writers saying that it’s impossible to please everyone, which is quite true.

    In that environment, it is easy to question whether or not to give more weight to one particular issue (that of hero/heroine rape) than we give to any number of other issues that readers sometimes object to — possessive heroes, heroines who don’t tell the heroes they’ve fathered a child and thus deprive their baby of a parent, alcoholic characters, etc. — I’ve seen all these things and more objected to and some even said to be “triggering” for some readers.

    Plus, I don’t want to say a romance is unethical. People make choices, and some of those choices are unethical.

    Good point.

    Nothing in ethics in simple, in my view. But I agree completely with what you say here.

    I’m glad we’re not so far apart in our views.

    I agree, and readers also have a choice of whether to enjoy something that may be degrading for them

    I’m not sure I agree with that completely. Readers don’t always know what’s in a book in advance, and just as some readers don’t have control over having a hero/heroine trigger traumatic memories, others don’t have control over finding it enjoyable. As I said before, people don’t choose their fantasies.

    and may contribute to the degradation of their sisters, in the name of entertainment.

    But there again, sometimes readers don’t know what’s in a book when they buy it, and even if they’ve heard there is a hero/heroine rape, how can they distinguish a book like To Have and to Hold from a book that merely has that kind of rape in order to titillate? Maybe if they’ve already read the book, but haven’t bought it yet, they have a choice over whether to buy it, but if they’ve never read it, they’re buying blind.

    Maybe it’s not all that different a dilemma than the one that anyone faces in any job. If I work for a factory that makes gadgets and pollutes the air in the process, is that unethical? On the one hand, the gadgets may be useful, and people may enjoy them, and the factory provides job which puts food on the table. But on the other hand, the air is polluted and maybe the water too — small animals might even die as a result, and maybe it affects, minutely, things like the fertility of the population. It can be argued, of course, that if people didn’t want the gadgets and didn’t buy them, they wouldn’t exist, but that doesn’t really fully answer the question of morality.

    Whoa Nelly! Let’s get those reins in! There is really no one “Question of Morality”, only a lot of specific really hard and interconnected ones, as you show here.

    I worded that badly. What I meant was that the fact that if people didn’t buy the gadgets, they and all their harmful byproducts wouldn’t exist, doesn’t tell us whether or not the gadgets do more good than harm, or more harm than good.

    But recognizing this interconnectedness doesn’t take away the fact that when you write a romance, you have a choice whether to include a rape scene in it, and further choices about how to portray rape. You DO have control over those choices, and it is your responsibility to reflect on what you are doing.

    Yes, that is true, up to a point, and I believe that some amount of reflectiveness on this h/h rape issue, as well as on many other issues, is a good thing and makes for better writing, as well as responsible writers. But even there, I think that the reflection has to be balanced against other considerations, like creativity and productivity.

    Really? It think maybe this is the question. We all get mad when romance authors take shortcuts. The dying child is one emotionally manipulative example. Instead of good writing, things get thrown in that the author knows will get a quick emotional charge out of the reader. If Gaffney wasn’t trying to titillate with the rape scenes, perhaps she could be “accused” if that’s the right word, of doing this? It trivializes rape and doesn’t serve the story. And this actually folds the moral concern back into the overarching artistic concerns. (I actually don’t think this is true of Gaffney, but I can’t think of an example off the bat.)

    I’m confused. If you don’t think it’s true of Gaffney, why do you think she could be “accused” of it? Or are you saying that there may be authors who don’t set out to titillate but are still taking a shortcut by having the hero rape the heroine?

    If it’s the latter, I think it’s possible, sure. But I think these scenes also have to be taken in the context of when they were published. In genre fiction, especially, there is what I think of as “riffing” on what has been written in the past. What I mean by this is that authors are also reading, and may respond to what they read by wanting to write a similar scenario in a very different way. That is part of how innovation happens.

    For example, say I read a bunch of secret baby books and the heroine never has a good reason for keeping the existence of her baby secret, yet she’s portrayed as though she’s done nothing wrong. Say I’m irritated by that. Eventually, I may respond to that by writing a heroine redemption story in which the heroine realizes she’s done a terrible thing by keeping her child and its father apart. She tries to atone for that in some fashion. Maybe in my story the father isn’t even the hero. Etc. I’ve differentiated my story from the usual secret baby story. Am I still taking a shortcut by using the secret baby trope, or am I doing something thoughtful and creative and reflective?

    The reason I bring this up is that back in the 1980s, I remember being some positively impressed with a couple of books in which rape or near rape was portrayed as the furtherst thing from titillating. Namely, McNaught’s Whitney, My Love and Putney’s Dearly Beloved. These h/h rapes (though Whitney gives consent, so that one is not rape in the legal sense of the word) were horrifying and traumatized the heroines, and at the time I read these books, both of them struck me as far more realistic than the h/h rapes I was used to reading, and I felt these authors were taking a stance on the way rape ought to be portrayed in the genre.

    I think to a reader reading them today, outside of their historical context, that may not be so evident. Many readers today dislike these books because to them, the heroes are big jerks, and that’s that. It is possible that some of those readers also feel that in having the hero rape the heroine, the authors took shortcuts they didn’t need to take. But I have some fondness for both books because at the time they were published, they seemed so much more thoughtful and reflective than the rest of the h/h rapes I read in that decade.

    I agree with you, and that’s why my review of THATH did not do this.

    I liked that very much about your review. It is frustrating to me sometimes that so many readers seem to make up their mind about this book without ever reading it.

    No where do I recommend evaluating works of art solely based on whether the authors appear to approve of actions that the reader disapproves of. I’d have to get rid of a lot of wonderful things that way!

    Yes. And I think it’s quite arguable whether or not Gaffney actually approves of Sebastian’s actions. She is portraying Rachel and Sebastian’s relationship from the inside. The book is written in deep POV, and there are no other characters’ POVs. Just because Rachel and Sebastian accept that this is how their relationship began doesn’t mean that Gaffney herself approves of Sebastian’s actions.

    BTW, Gaffney once commented on the book in an AAR “At the Back Fence” column, and you can find her thoughts on it here.

    But I do think I can look at one specific thing, say the use of rape in romance to sexually arouse the reader, or its exploitative use as an emotional shortcut, and say, “Hey. This is a significant evil in our lives today, and in many readers’ lives, that you seem not to have given a thought to. A different choice could have been and probably should have been made here.” Yes, I am making a moral judgment. It may be wrong, but it’s more than an assertion of my personal preference (and sometimes my moral judgments and personal preferences do not coincide at all, unfortunately. Whether this is the case for me and romance is TBD).

    Yes, you certainly can. But there are so many readers out there who make moral judgments of a variety of things in books, that for the author to consider them all becomes difficult. IMO authors can only, in the end, rely on their own internal moral compasses and perhaps those of their editors critique partners.

    It may seem like I am placing art below ethics, making it subservient, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paradoxically, this all comes out of my belief that art, and especially fiction, are central to living a life that can accurately be described as “human”. I’m committed to the ethical value of fiction, the crucial importance of fiction (and narrative of all kinds) in our moral development and moral understandings. Stories are how we learn, discover, share, revise, and communicate values, and I am interested in just which values are being communicated by specific texts in romance fiction.

    That’s beautifully said. It’s a very interesting genre to study. I think it’s very hard to write a romance that’s completely subversive. The hero almost always has to be older, more powerful, or more wealthy than the heroine. Otherwise it is harder for readers to see why he’s a good catch for her and why she’s attracted to him. But that also creates power disparities and for that reason, few romances are truly feminist.

    One of the most feminist romances I’ve read is a romantic suspense, A Man to Slay Dragons by Meagan McKinney, which explores the question of whether we women really want or need men to protect us from danger, and whether that desire in itself is dangerous. Interesting because many of McKinney’s historical romances aren’t nearly so subversive.

    Slightly outside the genre (because it was published as science fiction, although it’s also a romance), there’s Sharon Shinn’s Heart of Gold, which is a about a culture clash between patriarchal and matriarchal societies. The hero comes from a matriarchal society and is used to be subservient and since there is a lot of romance in Shinn’s books, it is interesting to see how she handles that.

  27. The hero almost always has to be older, more powerful, or more wealthy than the heroine. Otherwise it is harder for readers to see why he’s a good catch for her and why she’s attracted to him. But that also creates power disparities and for that reason, few romances are truly feminist.

    There seem to be a few logical alternatives. The first is a reversal. In that case presumably the reason why a wealthy, older, more powerful (WOMP) heroine might think a poorer, younger, weaker hero (PYW) was attractive could be precisely the same reasons that WOMP heroes currently find PYW heroines attractive. What would those be? An example of this might be Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful, since the heroine is older, much wealthier and in a position of power with regards to the hero’s scheme to make his fortune. He’s also the one with a mental health problem.

    Another alternative is romances in which the protagonists are roughly the same age, and have roughly the same amount of power and wealth. Would that be the case in romances with so-called “beta” heroes? Not that the Greek alphabet terminology is always very helpful, because different people can have such different ideas about what each letter actually means. Heyer’s The Grand Sophy might be an example of this. I can’t remember whether or not the hero is slightly older, but he’s got less independence and if he’s older it can’t be by very much.

    A final alternative is that instead of total inequality (leading to one party being WOMP and the other being PYW) or parity on all those issues, there might be a way of balance being found by one being lacking in the area where the other is stronger, e.g. the hero might have more money, but less political power. A problem with this is that (a) money and power are often inter-related and (b) age would appear to be seen as a good thing (increasing power) for men, but a bad thing (decreases power/value) for women. So getting an overall balance in this context could be more complicated than the previous option. Judith Ivory maybe manages it in Sleeping Beauty, in which the heroine is older, wealthier but lacks social acceptance, and the hero is younger, less sexually experienced, poorer but is accepted in society.

  28. I loved Miss Wonderful, Laura (though I think Alisdair had more sexual experience than Mirabel, so there was still a double standard there in some fashion). And I thought The Grand Sophy was absolutely sublime up until I reached the scene in which Sophy threatens Goldhanger, which struck me as anti-Semitic in its potrayal of the Jewish loan shark. It was the anti-Semitism that ruined that book for me, but the romance in it was one of the best I’ve ever read.

    Sleeping Beauty didn’t work so well for me, but mainly because I didn’t find the heroine believable as a courtesan. I wanted more reflection from her on the choices that she’d made which had led her to where she was. I believe Ivory said she had more of that in the book initially but cut some of those passages out so that readers would not judge Coco too harshly for being a courtesan. I think I could have loved the book otherwise — I did love the hero.

    In many ways I find the books in which the hero is more experienced than the heroine (Gaffney’s Wild at Heart, with its virginal hero, comes to mind) or significantly older (LaVyrle Spencer’s Family Blessings, with its 45 year old heroine and 30 year old hero, is a good example) more interesting than most of the books where that is not the case, if only because they feel like novelties. But the fact that they are less common seems to me to indicate that for whatever reason, market forces favor the more powerful hero.

    BTW, in my current WIP, the hero and heroine are the same age and at least in some parts of the story, the heroine is more wealthy. Getting that to work is a constant challenge, but it’s also part of what keeps me engaged.

  29. “for whatever reason, market forces favor the more powerful hero”

    I think that the way masculinity (associated with physical, and/or financial and/or political power and sexual experience) is constructed in contrast to femininity (associated with softness, gentleness, virginity or motherhood) has a lot to do with it. I suspect that many people won’t find a hero manly if he’s poorer, weaker, younger, and less sexually experienced than the heroine. I wonder, too, if that might explain the phenomenon Gaffney described in that article you linked to: “People have told me (somewhat sheepishly) that they liked him even before he reformed – and some even allow as how they liked him better before he reformed.” A reformed rake could presumably come across as a bit less masculine to some people, if their idea of masculinity is constructed around the exercise of power and unfettered expression of sexuality (which in many cases is actually less about sexuality than a way of asserting power, as in the case of rape).

  30. I think that the way masculinity (associated with physical, and/or financial and/or political power and sexual experience) is constructed in contrast to femininity (associated with softness, gentleness, virginity or motherhood) has a lot to do with it.

    I think so too.

    I wonder, too, if that might explain the phenomenon Gaffney described in that article you linked to: “People have told me (somewhat sheepishly) that they liked him even before he reformed – and some even allow as how they liked him better before he reformed.” A reformed rake could presumably come across as a bit less masculine to some people, if their idea of masculinity is constructed around the exercise of power and unfettered expression of sexuality (which in many cases is actually less about sexuality than a way of asserting power, as in the case of rape).

    It may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s all of it. I loved Sebastian both before and after his reformation, in different ways. In the second half of the book, I loved him in large part for his sensitivity to Rachel’s feelings, his perceptiveness, as well as for the change he had effected in himself and for his determination to “resurrect” Rachel.

    But in the first half I loved him too, and I think a lot of it was due to the same sensitivity and perceptiveness, which were present from the beginning, and which Gaffney brilliantly portrays as traits Sebastian sublimates. She does this by giving him an irreverent sense of humor, one that charmed me almost from the beginning. For example, in the scene in which we first meet Sebastian, he is parting from his greedy French mistress and paying her off with jewels:

    He reached into the inside pocket of his frock coat and withdrew a jeweler’s box. He flipped it to her in a quick underhand lob she couldn’t have been expecting. But with the dexterity of a cricket ace, she threw her hand up and caught it–chunk&lt. Like lead to a magnet, Sebastian analogized; or a lure to a great, hungry bass.

    I think this may have been the first moment in which I started to like Sebastian — the page or two prior had already given me the feeling that he was corrupt and I wasn’t sure he could appeal to me until his sene of humor began to come through here.

    Of his agreeing (while drunk) to serve as a magistrate, Sebastian thinks “How respectable, how stolid and squirelike of him, how Fieldingesque–how utterly unlike Sebastian Verlaine.”

    And here his response to a case that is brought before the court in the first chapter:

    “To wit,” Vanstone went on, “he became intoxicated at the George and Dragon, went outside and relieved himself in the river–in full view of several passerby, including a woman–and finally fell unconscious against the Maypole on the green, where he remained until the constable was summoned.”

    The image or it had a coarse, Rabelaisian charm that made Sebastian chuckle–inapproporiately, he saw at once, as Vanstone and the captain looked identically unamused, civically dismayed, and judicially set on dealing with this affront to public decency without delay, and certainly without levity.

    Without mercy, either.

    In spite of the fact that I knew he wasn’t a very nice person, I found Sebastian’s use of words like “Fieldingesque” and “Rabelaisian” charming. I can’t think of another hero who comes across as more intelligent, and not just because of literary references. The POV thought descriptions of his fellow magistrates “identically unamused, civically dismayed, and judicially set on dealing with this affront to public decency” were laugh-out-loud funny to me, especially since I agreed with his opinion that the punishment of sixty days imprisonment was too great for the crime.

    And that brings me to another point. Sebastian’s assessment after hearing several cases is as follows:

    Nobody had a lawyer, which made self-defense all but impossible; under English jurisprudence, the accused wasn’t allowed to speak on his own behalf. An indefensible system, Sebastian had always thought, and one on which the Americans had clearly improved.

    The caliber of crime in Wyckerley was nonviolent, venial, and definitely not worth repeating in humorous anecdotes for the delectation of his jaded friends. What surprised him was that he wasn’t altogether bored. No matter how trifling or ludicrous the offenses, the people who had perpetrated them were interesting, in their way–at least to look at and speculate upon; closer acquaintance would probably not be edifying, and Sebastian was a firm believer in the axiom that familiarity breeds contempt. But from this distance, and for a little while, their stories entertained him, and he even got an old moral lesson hammered home anew: the poor go to gaol for the same crimes with which the rich aren’t even charged.

    This passage is, I think, crucial to the affection I felt for Sebastian early on. It shows that on a level he is not willing to acknowledge, he cares about the fates of the people being brought before the court, even though they are not of his class, and he is outraged by the inequities of the Victorian justice system. It indicates that he is sensitive, perceptive, and has a strong moral compass, even while indicating that he is determined to override that moral compass and to make himself, as much as he is able to, not care.

    All the makings of the Sebastian of the second half are there in the first half, plus the irreverent sense of humor (which recedes somewhat when Sebastian becomes more sober and reflective later in the book).

    So when I read that, I saw all the potential for him to become a better person was there, even when he was being horrible, and I was invested in him from that point on (which is before Rachel ever appears in the text). The complexity of his internal conflict made him fascinating, and it was less pronounced in the second half. So I think those could also be another reason why some readers like him best in the first half.

    Something else that might be worth considering in that regard is the popularity of the outlaw figure in genre fiction. Sebastian in the first half is a kind of outlaw, a character who gets away with things others around him can’t. Not just forcing Rachel to have sex with him, but also keeping her from being sent to prison and protecting her from other threats. He also often doesn’t seem to care what other people think of him, and there is something to be admired there, or there would be, if he didn’t take it too far.

    So I think there are multiple reasons to his appeal in the first half.

  31. I see I messed up the blockquotes too… This is not my day… sigh.

  32. Some time ago, I started a discussion in another forum about what behavior in a hero is absolutely unforgiveable. The two leading acts were rape and physical violence. This makes me wonder if rape is qualitatively different from other forms of physical violence. Certainly consent is not an issue when the act is a sock in the jaw or a whipping! I can count on the fingers of one hand (maybe the thumbs) the books I’ve read in which I eventually forgave the hero for hitting the heroine. In the one I recall, he was an alcoholic at the time but has now reformed. But he still blamed her for provoking him (which in a sense she did), which I think is counter to the AA rule about taking responsibility for your own actions. And just as there are titillating rape scenes, there are also titillating spanking scenes (in fact, it’s a whole subgenre of pornography), so it seems that the issues involved in rape and in other forms of violence aren’t that easily distinguishable.

  33. SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER is a parody; and the whole point of it is that it is designed to fail, because the producers have swindled the backers.

    I’m aware of that, but your post brought it to mind. And it brought to mind “Life is Beautiful” (which is not a parody) as well.

    The musical version of AMERICAN PSYCHO (a story which features rape and mutilation murders in great detail) is apparently done straight. I’ve seen the documentary SHOAH, and I don’t think I’ll ever entirely get over it.

    I’ve seen parts of it — couldn’t stand to watch the whole thing, but I’ve heard and read enough first person accounts of the Holocaust that I’m sure I’ll never get over also. However, when you posted, I wasn’t sure if you were referring to the movie “Shoah” or to the word itself, which as you probably know is Hebrew for something close to holocaust, and is often used interchangably with holocaust.

    Some time ago, I started a discussion in another forum about what behavior in a hero is absolutely unforgiveable.

    My feeling on that is that in fiction, there is no such thing as unforgivable behavior — it all depends on the writer’s skill. Shakespeare could probably have made me forgive any character behavior had he wanted to.

    To me, one of the things that separates writing from most other arts is that in writing the author can show a characters thought processes and emotions from the inside. In real life we don’t have the ability to understand what drives other people with the same clarity we have in well-written fiction, and it’s partly that lack of understanding that makes forgiving hard.

    The other thing is that fiction is fiction, it is a representation of reality but not reality itself. Sure, if someone was a killer in real life I would want nothing to do with him, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love an assassin in fiction, as I did with Allegreto in Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart or with Bastien in Anne Stuart’s Black Ice.

    In fact, I often find it easier to relate to characters who are complicated, flawed and sometimes selfish than to the paragons of good behavior. Partly it’s because those characters seem more believable to me but maybe also because it’s that appeal of the outlaw that I spoke about before. And because when they have a conscience that plagues them and drives them to change for the better in a convincing way, those rare books that do that help me feel that there is hope for mankind.

  34. […] reviewed Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, which led me to consider the question of Rape in Romance. I did a little research, finding a recent (January 2008) meta-analysis in The Journal of Sex […]

  35. I was referring to SHOAH, the nine-hour documentary by Claude Lanzmann, which was presented as a miniseries on PBS.

  36. Talpianna, thanks for clarifying.

    Janine, I agree with you about flawed, immoral, or even evil characters. I love to read them. My interest in the post isn’t in those per se, but in the specific use of rape to titillate or as a fictional shortcut.

    On the question of flawed characters, though, I can’t resist adding that I am finishing up Linda Howard’s Death Angel and the heroine is musing about whether she can love an assassin who tried and almost succeeded in killing her. And her thought process: “There are a lot worse things than murder. And he’s only taking out the bad guys, after all…”, is priceless! (Review to come, eventually)

    Also, going back a few comments: no, I don’t think the rapes in Gaffney, at least not the first one, qualify as problematic in the ways I outline in the post and comments.

    Laura and Janine’s questions about the relative power of the hero and heroine are good ones. In some ways that speaks to how much fantasy there is in romance. It wouldn’t bother readers to have a hero who is not a catch FOR THEM if they weren’t using romance as fantasy. I hate the idea, actually, that I read romance for fantasy — I want to say it is literature and I read it mainly for the same literary values I get out of nongenre fiction — but I keep coming back to that point.

  37. I was referring to SHOAH, the nine-hour documentary by Claude Lanzmann, which was presented as a miniseries on PBS.

    I figured that out when you posted about having seen SHOAH. It was when I first read your first mention of it (“What’s next? SHOAH: THE MUSICAL?”) that I thought you were using the word in a more general way.

    Laura and Janine’s questions about the relative power of the hero and heroine are good ones. In some ways that speaks to how much fantasy there is in romance. It wouldn’t bother readers to have a hero who is not a catch FOR THEM if they weren’t using romance as fantasy. I hate the idea, actually, that I read romance for fantasy — I want to say it is literature and I read it mainly for the same literary values I get out of nongenre fiction — but I keep coming back to that point.

    I think most if not all genre fiction has some basis in fantasy. That doesn’t mean it can’t *also* be literature. Shakespeare’s plays are literature, and at the same time, much of his work has elements of fantasy.

  38. Good point Janine. Also, for anyone who is interested, the issue of heroine rape as a shortcut to character (to her character, a kind of super speedy chaarcter builder from what I gather) has also been raised in connection with Karen Marie Moning’s Faefever. KMont discusses the book (with spoilers) at Lurv a la Mode here, with links to Moning’s own blog post responding to the controversy in the comments.

  39. it seems to me that the rape fantasies of the 70s and 80s got popular on the heels of Nancy Friday’s books (My Secret Garden, 1973; Forbidden Flowers, 1975; Men in Love, 1980) about sexual fantasy (particularly women’s).

    MoJo, that’s an interesting connection. Do you mean rape fantasies (perhaps expressed as questionably consensual sex) started showing up explicitly in romance after Friday’s books?

    I’ve read My Secret Garden and Men in Love, but it’s been a while. I think in her early interviews she discovered how common these fantasies were, and how many of her subjects thought their fantasies were so strange that they must be unique. My impression (I think from reading an interview) was that over time she hoped to remove the shame and isolation, in order to make it possible to explore the basis for those sexual attitudes. If that type of consensual/rape storyline started becoming explicit after Friday’s books, perhaps she accomplished precisely that: the conversation came out into the open.

  40. MoJo, that’s an interesting connection. Do you mean rape fantasies (perhaps expressed as questionably consensual sex) started showing up explicitly in romance after Friday’s books?

    Uhm, yes? No? I don’t have it in my mind that it was cause’n’effect, exactly. I’m thinking it was more like serendipity, butterfly/chaos theory, something like that. The Flame and the Flower was published in 1972, so it can’t be all cause-and-effect.

  41. Regardless my feelings on fictional-rape-as-blameless-sexual-expression (because I do believe that’s what it is), I don’t think I could swallow that in a contemporary romance at my age.

    When I was 16 and reading Harlequin Presents, Carole Mortimer with her 36-year-old filthy rich heroes and 18-year-old ingenues, I thought that was SOOOOOOOO cool. A couple of years ago, I went on a Carole Mortimer glom for my birthday and went, “Shit, that’s rape. What was I THINKING???”

    In the book I’m finalizing for print right now (like, at this very moment), I started in 94 with the main hero being very cruel and he did actually rape the heroine (although not entirely on purpose). I knew that wouldn’t fly then and I certainly didn’t want it to fly now. The scene is still in the book, but it’s changed in tone so I got my forced seduction but didn’t let it bleed into rape. (I hope.)

    I can take rape in historicals. They did that then. Women were property, etc. etc. etc. I don’t judge historicals on today’s mores and I’ll throw a historical that does cater to today’s mores at the wall.

  42. I don’t have it in my mind that it was cause’n’effect, exactly. I’m thinking it was more like serendipity, butterfly/chaos theory, something like that.

    I shouldn’t have phrased it as a direct causation. It sounds like we’re on the same page. Anyway, it’s a good thought: Nancy Friday was certainly part of the gestalt of the times–whatever that achieved.

  43. “Gestalt.” That was the word I was looking for.

    And remember Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) came out in ’69. I’m not sure that had anything to do with anything romance-y, just lead to a more open general discourse about sex.

  44. Mojo,

    We have rape now, too, of course, but you’re right that in the US in the 00’s a different set of sex acts is considered rape. It was conceptually and legally impossible to define sex b/t white woman and a black man as anything other than rape in the antebellum south, and it was conceptually and legally impossible to define even the most violent and forced sex between a husband and wife rape at that time, too.

    I agree with you that authors ought to try to be true to the times, so, if you had forced sex in a historical between a husband and wife, it would have been unrealistic for the woman to call the police and tell her friends and assume everybody is going to go after her husband. But that’s different from writing it as though she loves rape and isn’t rape wonderful once you get used to it.

    Also, as to the tenor of the times, you had the introduction of the pill in 1961, which, for the first time, gave women significant control over their reproductive lives (they didn’t need participation of male partners to avoid contraception). And I’m sure lots of other things I can’t think of at the moment contributed.

  45. And Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1970. Free lovin’ and free information…. Good times and good clean fun. And now we have Jenna Jameson’s sex tips for porntastic good times.

    Jessica: “the issue of heroine rape as a shortcut to character (to her character, a kind of super speedy chaarcter builder

    I can understand a rape being necessary to a story, but to cast it as the woman needing it to build character? Oy. That’s not only squicky but, if it’s really as described, it sounds like iffy character and plotting.

    I’m not sure whether these rapists are full characters or if they’re presented more as an external force/random calamity. If they’re not characters in the rest of the book(s), that’s a whole different discussion. (E.g. there a hand-of-fate theme in which no one has any agency?) If they’re characters with power to act, though, the usual common sense of characterization rules probably apply.

    We call characters Too Stupid To Live when they appear to act irrationally, i.e. not of their own motivations but simply to help out the plot. Similarly, if a character must commit a rape, shouldn’t it be because that action is part of HIS trajectory? Not because another character is stagnant and “needs” to be acted upon?

    I think that’s a common characterization problem in romance: if the actions of one character are based on another’s lack of growth, it can leave both characters with unclear motivations. Sometimes that makes me doubt both the sincerity of the characters and the intentionality of the writing. Rape is one of those topics where I doubt most romance authors want to look thoughtless.


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