Romance Novels in The Journal of Sex Research

I 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 Research, which looked at some 20 studies over 30 years of women’s rape fantasies.

One of the questions asked by the study’s authors is why women have rape fantasies when they are repulsed by the thought of actual rape. They define rape fantasies as involving force, sex, and nonconsent. They do mention “aversive rape fantasies”, which are more like real rapes, featuring strange unattractive men and violence, but they say that most women’s rape fantasies are “erotic” — featuring most of the sex acts they would want to do anyway, with attractive men they would want to do them with.

An editor of Psychology Today summarizes the article, albeit with annoying interjections about the author’s own sexual history, here. Note the mock romance novel featured in the article:

[As an aside: One interesting statistic in the article is the claim that few (?no data) men fantasize about raping, but a “sizable minority” (10-20%) fantasize about being forced into sex. (For women, it’s anywhere from 37-51%)]

So, what do the authors conclude? Well, they consider a number of explanations: masochism, sexual blame avoidance, openness to sexual experience, desirability, male rape culture (which they reject because rapes have declined and because gender roles have changed so much in 40 years while rates of women who fantasize about rape have remained unchanged), biological predisposition to surrender, sympathetic activation (the physiological reaction to fear jump starts sexual arousal), and, most relevant for this romance readers: adversary transformation.

The authors hypothesize that a combination of adversary transformation, sympathetic activation, and something biological provide the best explanation, but more research is needed. (It certainly is: the authors haven’t provided compelling arguments for this view or against the other views, IMO.)

Guess what adversary transformation is all about? Hint: Patricia Gaffney could teach these researchers a thing or two about it. Not sure yet? Read on:

Romance novels, which account for 40% of mass
paperback sales in the United States (Salmon &
Symons, 2003), are erotic love stories written almost
exclusively by women for a female audience, and it is
not uncommon for these novels to include themes of
rape. One review of historical romance novels found
that 54% included the rape of the lead female character
(Thurston, 1987)
. In particular, Hazen’s (1983) analysis
of rape in romance novels also functions as a theory of
women’s erotic rape fantasies.

In essence, both romance novels and rape fantasies
are created works of fiction. Sexual fantasies are selfgenerated
erotic stories often intentionally initiated to
provide enjoyment and sexual arousal. Romance novels
are structured erotic fantasies that individuals intentionally
expose themselves to, typically for emotional
satisfaction and sexual arousal.
In a rape fantasy women
create an imaginary scenario and they participate in the
fantasy through the rape experience of their self
character. In a romance novel that includes rape, women
identify with the lead female character and vicariously
experience her rape.

Hazen (1983) notes that, although the hero in
romance novels must be handsome, he may also be
cruel. Gorry (1999), in a content analysis of male
romance heroes, found that these men are strong,
masculine, muscular, sexually bold, and dangerous.
According to Salmon and Symons (2003), romance
heroes are not gentle and sensitive; they are men with
the physical and temperamental qualities of warriors.
There are systematic differences in the ways that men
and women view sexual interactions.

In sexual fantasies, both consensual and forced, men typically see themselves as doers and women see themselves as the ones to whom sexual acts are done (Ellis & Symons, 1990;Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). When men view explicit sexual activity, the woman in the scene often functions as a sexual object and he imagines taking her out of the scene and having sex with her. Viewing the same scene, women typically imagine themselves as the object of male passion rather than focusing on the male and expressing her passion for him (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972). This carries over to romance fiction, where the focus is on the heroine’s subjective experience of the male’s passion for her and sometimes of her pain from male abuse, which heightens the emotional intensity of the story (Hazen, 1983).

Hazen argues that the romance novel presents the
heroine with an exciting challenge. In male fiction,
the challenge takes the form of a violent confrontation
with an evil adversary. In romance novels, there is
often a violent confrontation with a dominant, sexually
aggressive adversary who appears to be evil. The challenge
for the heroine is to conquer his heart, seduce
him into falling in love with her, have him voluntarily
make a lifetime commitment to her, and transform his
apparent evil and cruelty into something more socially
acceptable without diminishing his masculinity. In
romance novels, rape is used as an effective means of
creating excitement and dramatic tension.
argues that, in the female imagination, shattered purity
through violent sex is a primordial danger whose
tension creates a powerful story.

In romance novels the narrative structure allows the
fantasy to continue to completion in marriage. In
erotic rape fantasies, the notion of conquering the heart
of the rapist may be implicit. Researchers could investigate
the attitude of the rapist toward the self character
at the end of the fantasy. Has he been won over and
transformed? For rape fantasies that occur during intercourse,
research could determine whether there is any
linkage between the partner and the fantasy rapist.

Adversary transformation provides a fresh view of
what may transpire in rape fantasies, but it is yet to be
empirically tested. It is generally compatible with each
of the other theories except for masochism and male
rape culture, and it shows a close fit to sympathetic
activation theory.

I have a few comments about the above:

1. I can’t believe that 40% number for rape of the heroine in historicals is true today. What would the change in percentage of romance rapes do to their thesis?

2. The Hazen book they cite for most of this is from 1983 (Hazen, H. (1983). Endless rapture. New York: Scribner.) I wonder if there’s new research or theory the authors have overlooked — often this happens in academia: we’re in our silos, unfortunately, and interesting cross fertilizations are prevented.

3. The authors imply that all romance heroes have rapist qualities — aggression, warrior mentality, and all that. This is neither true for all romance heroes today, nor was it ever true for rapists (a substantial minority of whom are actually passive and weak in their daily lives. They rape to reassure themselves of their power.)

4. The authors say that romance reading is just erotic fantasy, for the purpose emotional satisfaction and sexual arousal. They later equate (in quite a leap) pornography and romance novels. I wonder how the adversary transformation thesis fares under a more accurate view of romance?

5. They are using romance novels as data about women’s rape fantasies. But many readers avoid romances in which rape is featured. Is their use of the sales figures and themes in romance as a guide to real women’s rape fantasies legit?

Anyway, thought I’d share!

Published in: on September 30, 2008 at 11:47 pm  Comments (4)  
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  1. I found a version of this essay online and freely accessible, so in case anyone wants to read it in full, it’s here.

    I looked up the Salmon and Symonds and the synopsis says that:

    The stark contrasts between romance novels and pornography underscore how different female and male erotic fantasies are. These differences reflect human evolutionary history and the disparate selection pressures women and men experienced, say the authors of this thought-provoking book. Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons review the fundamental importance of evolutionary history to human psychology, discuss how male and female sexual psychologies differ, and then demonstrate how sex differences in erotica illustrate this.

    I tend to be rather wary of explanations of differences between men and women’s behaviour which is based on suppositions about evolution because I think so much of gender difference is constructed by culture. I don’t know though, what evidence Salmon and Symons provide in support of their ideas.

  2. women identify with the lead female character

    This assumption is often made in discussing the genre (whether or not the romance under discussion includes rape), and I wonder if it has been proven. Ever since I read Laura Kinsale’s essay, “The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance,” which appeared in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, I have questioned it. To quote from Kinsale:

    Perhaps the most intriguing conundrum of hero-identification is the joy romance readers take in the “fractured hero”: the ripped-up, torn apart, brought-to-his-knees alpha male. Once again, this is a pheomenon that has widely been interpreted in the light of presumed heroine-identification. Modleski has argued that it represents a female revenge fantasy: “…all the while [the hero] is being so hateful, he is internally grovelling, grovelling, grovelling.” Others have emphasized, like Krentz, the mythic struggle of the female to civilize and bond to the male, or, like Radway, the creation of a comforting fairy tale of perfect romantic love. In these interpretations an emotionally shattered hero presumably would be a tamed one, providing the reader the vicarious satisfaction of the heroine’s success.

    Perhaps so. But I would like to point out one salient fact. During the height of the reading experience–when the reader feels that wrench of emotion, the tingle in the spine, the full and authentic inner twist of reader identification with a character in an emotional cataclysm–when Rhett says to Scarlett, “Frankly, my dear…”; when Ruark Beauchamp of Shanna raises an inhuman “raging howl…from the wagon accompanied by repeated thuds against the heavy wooden door”; when Clayton Westmoreland shatters the brandy glass in his hand in Judith McNaught’s Whitney My Love; when Slade in Nora Roberts’ A Matter of Choice growls, “I love you, damn it. I’d like to choke you for it” — who, may I ask, is the reader at that moment?

    Not the heroine, basking in female revenge or bonding triumph.

    Oh, no. She’s the hero.

    Quoted under fair use. Interesting, no?

  3. Laura,

    I am also very wary of biological explanations. Thank you for tracking down that link and more information on the Salmon and Symonds research.


    That’s a great passage from Kinsale, and I agree with it from personal reader experience. I do wonder if anyone has studied this question.

    Heck, maybe women who fantasize about rape read rapes in romance because they want to identify with the rapist: the fantasy becomes not a sex fantasy but a power fantasy.

    While I agree that “adversary transformation” is a salient feature in many romances, especially those featuring rakes, there are so many problematic assumptions in the JSR article, it’s breathtaking.

  4. That’s a great passage from Kinsale, and I agree with it from personal reader experience. I do wonder if anyone has studied this question.

    I don’t know. I think Sarah Frantz may have done some work that deals with readers’ preference for the male POV in romances. It does appear to be a strong preference — there are many readers who won’t read first person (heroine only) POV romances. Also, though this may or may not pertain — m/m romances are growing more popular but f/f romances don’t seem to be.

    Heck, maybe women who fantasize about rape read rapes in romance because they want to identify with the rapist: the fantasy becomes not a sex fantasy but a power fantasy.

    I think it may even be possible to identify with both. I know that when I read a redemption story, it gives me hope because I identify with the redeemed character, regardless of that character’s gender. While “adversary transformation” may be part of what’s going on for the reader, I think it’s likely that “self-transformation” is also a factor. Books with big character arcs (so long as they are well-written enough to be convincing) help me believe that I too can become a better person.

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