Runaway Train: Uncontrollable Hero Lust in Romance


“If you touch me again,” [Zachary] said raggedly. I won’t be able to stop. I’ll take you right here, Holly … do you understand?” — Where Dreams Begin, Lisa Kleypas


He bent his head beside hers. “I can’t help myself,” he murmured roughly. “I can’t — stop myself.” — The Shadow and the Star, Laura Kinsale


I couldn’t stop now if all the forces in hell got in the way,” he said, and he was parting her legs with his own…” — The Waiting Game, Jayne Ann Krentz


“Tell me if I’m too rough, Or tell me to stop altogether, if ye wish. Anytime until we are joined; I dinna think I can stop after that.” —Outlander, Diana Gabaldon


“Be sweet”, I said, the first time I had spoken.

“I can’t. Next time I’ll be sweet, I swear.” —Living Dead in Dallas, Charlaine Harris


His face lowered to hers, so close that she felt his ragged exhalation against her lips. “Emma, you can trust me with your life. But I am not your brother. You cannot trust me in this.” — Duke of Shadows, Meredith Duran


She smiled. “We’re engaged. You can touch me.”

“No, actually, I can’t.” He straightened and picked up the paring knife again. “If I touch you, I’m not certain I’ll be able to stop.” —The Serpent Prince, Elizabeth Hoyt


“Lucinda,” he breathed, his arms shaking a little as they held his weight, “This is your last chance to esc-” —England’s Perfect Hero, Suzanne Enoch


“Don’t move, or I won’t be able to stop myself.” —Dreaming of You, Lisa Kleypas

These examples weren’t hard to find: they’re from my own book shelf.  Historicals are overrepresented, due both to the fact that I have more historicals in my house than any other subgenre of romance, and also because historicals, featuring so many virgins, probably lend themselves to this kind of talk.

Still, I don’t think it would difficult to find many other paranormal and contemporary examples (and if you have any in mind, please share).  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that male lust as a runaway train is pretty common in romance, or at least in romances published in the last several years, probably because driving men wild is a powerful fantasy for many women readers.


"Somebody stop me!"

It just so happens that I was reading the classic Lois Pineau essay, “Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis”, this week. (Law and Philosophy 8, 1989, 217-243).

In that essay, Pineau defines date rape as nonconsensual sex that does not involve physical injury (actual or threatened). Consent is determined from the perspective of the man: the court has to be persuaded that the man believed, sincerely and reasonably, that the woman did not consent (this is the mens rea, or “guilty mind” — criminal intent — requirement).

Pineau claims that it’s very hard for a woman to prove she did not consent to date rape thanks to some mutually supporting myths, the whole of which she calls the “aggression-acquiescence” model of sexuality. One is the myth that male sexual desire is “so hard to control.”

The rationale, I believe, comes in the form of a belief in the especially insistent nature of male sexuality … At a certain point in the arousal process, it is thought, a man’s rational will gives way to the prerogatives of nature. His sexual need can and does reach a point where it is uncontrollable, and his natural masculine aggression kicks in to ensure that this need is met.

Pineau claims that this myth works with other myths, like that women have a disproportionate burden for controlling men’s sexuality, for example, by not being sexually provocative, to invalidate nonconsent. (She’s offering mainly conceptual analysis, but there’s lots of empirical data for the prevalence of the myth of uncontrollable male sexuality among rapists. Prosecutor and law prof Andrew E. Taslitz, in Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom, gives a number of examples of these myths at work, to support his general thesis that “what storytelling theory teaches us is that patriarchal tales are of enormous power, weighing heavily in favor of the defense. The power disparity is so great that it is very difficult for the victim’s story even to be heard” [NYU Press, 1999].)

Catharine Peirce Wells thinks that Pineau’s proposal to allow mere silence or unenthusiastic encouragement to count as nonconsent is harmful to men. In “Date Rape and the Law: Another Feminist View” (Date Rape: Feminist, Philosophy and the Law, Ed. Leslie Francis, Penn State University Press, 1996) Wells has this to say:

[Consider] a typical romance novel. The handsome hero sweeps a charming but inexperienced woman off her feet. She doesn’t object, nor does she offer much encouragement. For her, the romance of the situation is enhanced by the fact that she feels overwhelmed by the hero’s strong (single-minded) and silent (noncommunicative) pursuit of sexual pleasure. Certainly, the woman who “succumbs” in such circumstances does not have a self-empowering view of her own sexuality. And perhaps there are many women who would find the hero neither sexy nor ethical. However, if millions of women buy such novels and describe these scenes as ‘sexy’, can we really convict a man of rape when he interprets his partner’s conduct in the context of this story? Is it unreasonable for a man in this society to construe such silence as consent? Under such circumstances, shouldn’t we at least require that the woman say “NO!”?

Wells contends that the popularity of romance novels proves that Pineau’s definition of date rape is too all encompassing, not leaving room for a very popular and socially accepted type of seduction which both women and men enjoy. (She doesn’t consider that what women may enjoy in fantasy is not that enjoyable in reality).

None of the romance scenes I listed above are rapes. In several of those scenes, the hero does in fact stop, despite claiming that he cannot. And the ensuing or eventual sexual encounters are very satisfying to both consenting parties.

However, it’s undeniable that those passages make sense to readers because of a pervasive myth about male sexuality, and it’s also undeniable that this very myth plays a certain unsavory role in rape, whether legitimizing it in the eyes of the perpetrator, or in the eyes of the court (or the eyes of the victim).

[Consider those lines — in a contemp or paranormal — coming from a woman. Would they feel as normal?]

How do you think this common romance “trope” functions in these examples?  Does it shore up problematic myths about uncontrollable sexual urges of men? Or does it serve, pace Wells, to re-conceive the myth of uncontrollable male sexuality from a woman’s point of view?

Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 6:58 am  Comments (34)  
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  1. Sigh. Sometimes I feel very not smart.

    I can offer only my own experience. I started reading romance novels in my mid-teens and in the absence of any guidance on male-female relationships from my mother or other older caring woman (this is not to indict my mom, she just didn’t engage in that area). I’d hesitate to say, for obvious reasons, that everything I learned of love came from either movies or romance novels but that probably is at least a little bit accurate. Anyway, reading lines like this did help me understand a perspective – knowing and understanding I was reading fiction – and POV with which I’d overwise have no experience. I can see where another girl/woman might have the line blurred, but for me reading these things in the context of what I understood to be not real was actually helpful. A college friend/something more said something similar to me once and I burst out laughing, “My God! You sound like a Fabio hero!” As I said, though, I can see where other woman may have taken something completely different away.

    There are some paranormals – Kresley Cole’s come to mind – where the heroines take the unstoppable male idea and seize power from it.

  2. My theory on this has to do with the fantasy nature of romance novel sex–it’s not so much that the man’s desire is uncontrollable, it’s that it’s uncontrollable WITH THE HEROINE. It’s another way of showing their love/lust is Destined; code, if you will, as the Big Misunderstanding plot is code for “the only barriers to this romance are minor ones.”

  3. Great post! I was waiting for the Jamie line!

    I think it’s just wrong to bring romance novels into the argument whatsoever. Not on your part, Jessica, but as a legal argument. Especially if one assumes men are reading them.

    I agree with your fantasy/reality statement. These tropes often function as safe ways for a woman to explore fantasies of submission while retaining control (because she can put the book down, so is the true dom – I don’t know that most women could articulate that, but I think most understand it), just as we see a lot of plots, esp. historical, as prostitution fantasies (e.g. Sherry Thomas’ first).

    I do think the myth of uncontrollable sexuality is often a key part of the fictional dream here – by portraying the hero as being driven by ardor no man can control, and maybe even having an extra dose of it, he can play the dominant animal but be exempted from wrongdoing and kept moral for the heroine to love.

    Does it shore up the myth, like in a victim’s mind? if she honestly thinks he can’t stop…is that sort of the question? Does Wells think women are brainwashed by these books, and it makes them sort of a partner in date rape?

    Part of me can vaguely see certain women thinking ‘this is how guys are, how sex is, from all I’ve read,’ but part of me would have to wonder, does the tacit understanding that she can always put a book down trump that belief in some way? I mean, I see why Wells makes the argument, but it’s based on a lack of separation of fictional norms and real norms on the part of the woman. A lack of consciousness about who is dominant when, reading vs. life.

  4. it’s not so much that the man’s desire is uncontrollable, it’s that it’s uncontrollable WITH THE HEROINE.

    Well, Victoria beat me to the punch.

    The fantasy is that the heroine is so irresistible to a man she finds irresistible (even if subconsciously).

  5. I’ve linked to this discussion over at TMT because I think it’s a really interesting post. I’m not sure how many people read TMT who don’t already read this blog, but I thought I’d do my best to make sure they didn’t miss out on reading this post.

    Anyway, re what Carolyn Jean wrote: “I think it’s just wrong to bring romance novels into the argument whatsoever. Not on your part, Jessica, but as a legal argument.” I think that the idea of men having uncontrollable/unstoppable sexual urges isn’t something which just appears in romances. It’s part of a widely prevalent set of ideas about male sexuality which exists outside the genre. Apparently this set of ideas been termed the “male sexual drive discourse” (see my post here for citation details) and can affect attitudes towards safe sex as well as the attitudes towards rape Jessica’s mentioned here.

    The “male sexual drive discourse” may appear in contexts which aren’t fictional, so the discourse itself blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. This isn’t so much an issue of some readers being gullible or unable to distinguish between truth and fiction, but about myths about male sexuality which are prevalent in society.

    “it’s not so much that the man’s desire is uncontrollable, it’s that it’s uncontrollable WITH THE HEROINE”

    That’s possibly true, although as these heroes are often described as “rakes” the impression one might get is that they’ve always been uncontrollable, but now they’re only uncontrollable with the heroine (and have suddenly become immune to the attractions of other women).

    This modification to the idea of the uncontrollable male sexual drive could mean that (a) if a man is not uncontrollable, perhaps a woman should assume that he’s metaphorically as well as literally “just not that into you” and (b) if he’s uncontrollable and date rapes you, that’s proof that he just couldn’t resist you and might be your One. That works well in romance, but would be really damaging things to think was true in real life.

  6. Sorry, hope that last comment made sense. I wish you had a preview function on here, Jessica. Though that’s probably me just trying to dredge up an excuse for myself and it would probably have read just as badly if my addled brain, which is trying to work out what to make for dinner, had taken a look at a preview.

  7. I want to respond at length to this post, but I think I’m going to do it in my Monday Access Romance Readers Gab post, because I know I’m going to ramble (I have a lot to say about the legal issues here, which IMO are *very* relevant).

  8. Unlike Carolyn, I was surprised to see the Jamie quote included because I’m not sure it compares with the rest. It’s been a few years since I last read Outlander, but I remember this specific bit as the inexperienced Jamie being concerned about his first time with Claire, not as some out of control alpha thing. He was a virgin at that point in the book, wasn’t he? And Claire, of course, was the experienced one.

    I’ll have to think about the rest before writing anything further. I’m intimidated by the very smart posters your blog attracts, Jessica…

  9. Jessica, if you were ever thinking of following this up in a more formal way, a book that might be useful (but which I haven’t managed to get hold of) is

    Larcombe, Wendy. Compelling Engagements : Feminism, Rape Law and Romance Fiction. Annandale, N.S.W. : Federation P., 2005. There’s a description of it here and bits of it are visible via Google Books.

    I’m still mulling this over, and I was really intrigued by Marsha’s comment:

    A college friend/something more said something similar to me once and I burst out laughing, “My God! You sound like a Fabio hero!” As I said, though, I can see where other woman may have taken something completely different away.

    This suggests that for some readers, the male sexual response discourse is more likely to be revealed to be a fiction when it’s included in a fictional context which takes things to extremes, as things often are in romance, because the hero is super-large, super-handsome, ultra-virile etc. The reader might conclude that yes, a romance hero might behave that way, but no-one else would.

    I suspect I’m a rather more gullible reader than Marsha is, or at least a more susceptible one. For example, when I was reading the novels I criticised for perpetuating the beauty myth because they reinforced the idea that thin=beautiful, I still started to feel as though I should eat less. I don’t tend to like rakes, though, because I’m convinced they must have sexually transmitted infections, so I’m never end up feeling that the way they behave is particularly attractive/desirable.

  10. I am not sure that all the examples fit. For example in at least three of those, the heroine is being given the option of continuing or not continuing. Presumably Holly does willingly touch Zachary and therefore is consenting to continue?

    I do think that in historicals in particular the idea is that the rake is uncontrollable with the heroine, that they get lost with her. Nearly all the time, they talk about having been detached (controlled) with all their other conquests, but with the heroine they lose it.

    Sometimes these type of arguments annoy me, because they seem to assume that as readers we can’t differentiate between what we read and what is acceptable in real life. Having said that, maybe the line is blurred, maybe there are people out there who can’t. Is it any different than the scenes portrayed in the movies where people can’t wait to get inside the apartment door to start ripping each other’s clothes off? I am not likely to do that in real life, and yet it is a scene that we see over and over in movies!

    Whilst there are some romances out there where there are definitely rape scenes, the vast majority are portraying consensual sex between two people who are attracted to, or in love with each other.

    Maybe I am missing the point of these arguments.

  11. Is it any different than the scenes portrayed in the movies where people can’t wait to get inside the apartment door to start ripping each other’s clothes off? I am not likely to do that in real life, and yet it is a scene that we see over and over in movies!

    I suppose it partly depends on what kind of movies they are. What happens to these people afterwards? But they perhaps set up an ideal of what sex “should” be like, or what the best/most exciting sex is like. They might also give some viewers the impression that great sex doesn’t involve verbal negotiation of boundaries and/or use of contraception. That reminds me of this recent news item:

    Groundbreaking research suggests that pregnancy rates are much higher among teens who watch a lot of TV with sexual dialogue and behavior than among those who have tamer viewing tastes. […]

    The new study is the first to link those viewing habits with teen pregnancy, said lead author Anita Chandra, a Rand Corp. behavioral scientist. Teens who watched the raciest shows were twice as likely to become pregnant over the next three years as those who watched few such programs.

    Previous research by some of the same scientists had already found that watching lots of sex on TV can influence teens to have sex at earlier ages.

    Shows that highlight only the positive aspects of sexual behavior without the risks can lead teens to have unprotected sex “before they’re ready to make responsible and informed decisions,” Chandra said. (Chicago Tribune)

    Two other people quoted there commented that “”The media does have an impact, but we don’t know the full extent of it because there are so many other factors,” and “Media helps shape the social script for teenagers.” Both of those points have been raised on this thread i.e. romances don’t exist in a social vacuum and yet they may contribute to shaping some people’s attitudes.

  12. I think I was not clear. Here’s the argument stated plainly:

    Lois Pineau:

    1. Juries are reluctant to convict men of date (nonviolent) rape even when they should.

    2. This is because juries tend to see consent where it does not exist.

    3. Why don’t juries — good people — see that silence is NOT consent?

    4. Here’s why: because they buy into a strong cultural sex myth, the myth that sex between men and women involves aggression on the part of the man and acquiescence on the part of a woman.

    5. One of the aspects of this myth is the myth of the unstoppable male sex drive

    Response by Wells:

    1. The reason juries do not see nonconsent is because the woman DOES consent in many of these cases.

    2. We have a perfectly consensual sexual script that allows seduction by a man of a female.

    3. You don’t believe me? Read a romance novel. These things are full of what you call date rape. But I don’t call it date rape and neither do the women who read them. They wouldn’t sell in the gazillions if this wasn’t an acceptable scenario.

    4. If a woman does not say no it is NOT rape, regardless of cultural scripts.


    1. Wells is right: The myth of uncontrollable male sex drive sure is prevalent (see examples from romance).

    2. Contra Wells, I doubt we can move from a claim of “it sells like hotcakes in romance” to, “therefore it doesn’t perpetuate problematic sexual scripts.”

    3. I like Pineau’s reminder that what counts as evidence (in this case, consent) is shot though with these cultural ideas, like the myth of male sexual aggression.

    4. I did not get into Pineau’s proposal for an alternate sexual story in the post, but suffice it to say that I share Wells’ concern with it.

  13. [Sorry — hellish day at work and the natives are restless at home.]

    And here’s the other piece:

    Pineau says that what is happening in the nonconsenting date rape aggression-acquiescence scenario is not really pleasurable to either party anyway.

    She proposed an alternative communicative model.

    The examples from romance are actually really close to Pineau’s communicative model of sexuality, except that they include this bit about uncontrolled male sexuality.

    So I was actually wondering if we could possibly look at what’s happening as a liberatory recasting of this patriarchal story about male aggression-female acquiescence. A kind of womanist (if not feminist?) reappropriation.

    This would be different from Wells’s view of it.

  14. So I was actually wondering if we could possibly look at what’s happening as a liberatory recasting of this patriarchal story about male aggression-female acquiescence. A kind of womanist (if not feminist?) reappropriation.

    IMO the relationship between Romance FS, rough sex, or outright rape is very complicated as it relates for RL rape. That said, I think that one of the reasons these scenarios are so common in Romance reflects an attempt to negotiate subjective command over something that leaves us extremely vulnerable and even afraid in RL. That they can be very subversive, even though they do not remove the fear in RL and may even exacerbate scholars who are trying to understand why juries don’t convict more often on rape (which makes me wonder whether either of these women cited are lawyers or legal scholars, because seriously, read the rape laws, and IMO it becomes very clear why juries don’t convict more often).

  15. Robin,

    I am not sure I understand how you are using “exacerbate” in your comment. Is a word missing?

    Wells is a PhD/JD prof at Boston College Law. Not sure what her practice history is.

    Pineau, the time of writing, was a Phd in philosophy from UWO, now an attorney in, I think, Toronto.

    Laura – Thanks for the linkage from TMT, and for that citation. I knew of the Larcombe only because it was mentioned on your blog (see, I now use the TMT search function before I dare post anything!). But it seemed so obscure I didn’t follow up. Maybe I’ll see if our interlibrary loan folks can scare up a copy. (Oh, and I looked into previewing comments. No go on Word Press, sadly.)

    I liked Mojo and Victoria’s point that it is not indiscriminate uncontrolled sexual urges, but only uncontrollable with the heroine, but also I like Laura’s cogent response to that line of argument slightly more.

    Marsha — Thank you for mentioning Cole. I am sure you are right, especially about the first one in that paranormal series. We have similar backgrounds — I grew up with single celibate mother myself. Your comment makes me wonder if I gravitated to romance in my early teens partly for that reason.

    Marg — I appreciate your point about differentiating between these cases. I have taken them all out of context which is not entirely fair. However, none of these are cases of nonconsensual sex in the least, which is what I find so interesting — despite this male/sex/aggression type language.

    I also hear what you are saying about confusing RL and romance. That was a problem I had with the Wills: she assumes that what women readers approve of in romance they approve of in RL (although she doesn’t assume we confuse it, to be fair).

    However, as Laura points out, the things we consume and that are in the culture are influences for us, in ways we often don’t cognize.

    Robin is of course right that the relation between romance and real life is complicated — but it exists nonetheless.

    I honestly don’t know what to think about the function of these fantasies. Probably we cannot generalize at any rate — across examples, as so many of you have pointed out upthread, or even across readers, as I am sure Laura has already pointed out somewhere.

    I would like to think Robin’s take is right. It sure makes me feel a lot better than the alternative. But that’s not a good enough reason, we all realize, to choose it over some more compelling, but less flattering explanation.

  16. I read these posts wth interest and amusement!

    Most people have ignored the clear statistical spread in all human behaviour trends. Men’s sexual urges can become uncontrollable in a tiny minority who are consequently potential rapists.

    For normal men I think that the woman is usually well able to take control,and this reflects strongly in the romance novels that I have enjoyed.

    Romance does reflect aspects of RL. But like a curved mirror it exagerates and distorts for our entertainment!

  17. Quantum,

    Thank you for visiting.

    Most people have ignored the clear statistical spread in all human behaviour trends. Men’s sexual urges can become uncontrollable in a tiny minority who are consequently potential rapists.

    Yes, we assume the myth of uncontrollable male sexuality is just that. A myth. This is makes the question of the prevalence of rape so interesting.

    For normal men I think that the woman is usually well able to take control,and this reflects strongly in the romance novels that I have enjoyed.

    If you mean, “Normal men listen to women when they say no” yes, of course. The vast majority of men are not rapists.

    But if you mean, “Normally, when a man ignores consent and tries to have sex with a woman against her will, she can stop him”, I would have to strongly disagree.

    Romance does reflect aspects of RL. But like a curved mirror it exaggerates and distorts for our entertainment!

    Yes, I agree. And one of the things I find interesting is to push that first point, and ask what it reflects, how and why it reflects it (Is it exaggeration just for fun? Quite possibly.), and what the effects of this reflection might be.

  18. Jessica, As a (male) scientist I would define ‘normal men’ as those within a couple of standard deviations from the centre of the behaviour distribution. I believe that such men would not want to inflict pain on a woman. The problem lies with identifying normality before trusting someone!

    I think that the serious romance novelist generally gives an insight into her/his perspective on life through the writing. If the author sees humour in RL situations, that may be reflected in the novel. For example, I have never met Jennifer Crusie, but from her novels I feel that I know what would amuse her and would have no difficulty choosing a Christmas present that would please!

  19. Ouch, my whole comment was pretty incoherent, lol. That’s what I get for typing while I was talking on the phone — I have a hard enough time being clear when I’m actually focused on one task. I meant “exacerbate the frustration of scholars. . . ” as I think, well, I think a lot of things, but mostly I think that the difference between non-Romance readers and Romance readers here may be crucial, and also that because rape laws vary widely from US jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it can be tough to make any national generalizations beyond certain trends.

    So there’s first the problem of understanding the novels within the context of the readership (who understand their various codes, etc.) and then of applying that understanding to the vagaries of rape law AND to juries. JMO, of course.

  20. And I guess I should add a third problem of relating the novels to RL rape cases, which, as everyone here has been discussing, presents a whole series of difficulties.

  21. I think it’s only fair to mention the opposite trope — the one in which the hero, being more experienced, knows what is going on and stops before the less experienced heroine goes over the brink. I’ve seen that in any number of romances (and can look them up, if you really need them). One author who does it that way sometimes is Leslie Lafoy; there are others. Lafoy also sometimes has the hero taking responsibility for birth control.

  22. Virginia,

    Thank you. Yes, that’s true. In pointing out this particular trope, I didn’t mean to imply anything about the existence or lack of other ones.

    It is interesting to think about the trope of the eager heroine and the reluctant hero — is her eagerness aptly characterized as “aggression”? And if we do not call it that, is it only because the heroine is a female?


    Yes, I agree with most of what you say. I thought the Wells’ was interesting because here you have a self-avowed feminist legal scholar using the content and consumption of romance novels to defend her feminist argument.

    So often in romancelandia, it is assumed that feminists only mention romance to bash it. While I disagree with Wells’ argument for the reasons you mention, I thought it was worth bringing to light a case of a feminist using romance positively, i.e. as a way to find out about what women may or may not find acceptable in sex.

    I’m brought back to the very first post — the unnecessarily modest Marsha, who said something important about how she has critically consumed romance.

    I agree with the point that so many who use romance for examples — either for good or bad — don’t know the genre (and Wells may be one of those people).

    But now I wonder how far the argument that “we know romance and we know how to read these texts” can take us. That’s a topic for another post!

  23. Jessica,

    I don’t see this as a reader v. non-reader issue; for me it’s more of a ‘how do Romance readers read these books’ issue. That is, an inquiry to start with that respects the fact that genre books have certain paradigms within which genre readers understand and read genre books. So IMO when someone who is not a genre reader comes critically to these books (which is so often a good thing, IMO, because fresh perspectives are incredibly valuable), cognizance of the fact that genre readers may be reading the books in a certain way can help these analyses.

    Not that such a thing is problem free, either, because a) we all tend to universalize a reading experience that is anything but b) how do you account for all genre readers reading, and c) does the genre insider status actually blind genre readers to things that are very clear to those outside the genre, etc. But I do think there has to be some attempt to understand the genre paradigm before drawing any conclusions about how genre relates to RL and vice versa.

  24. “It is interesting to think about the trope of the eager heroine and the reluctant hero — is her eagerness aptly characterized as “aggression”? And if we do not call it that, is it only because the heroine is a female?”

    I think that authors are more likely to use the word “enthusiastic” rather than “aggressive.”

    I am presuming that they are using “enthusiastic” in its modern meaning rather than that of the 18th century (overly emotional).

  25. What’s also interesting about the “reluctant” hero Virginia pointed out, or more the hero who stops the action, is what that is supposed to say about the hero’s morality. Like, I just read The Windflower (virgin abducted by pirates) and the heroine is overly enthusiastic, though portrayed as not in control, too, bewildered by the sex her betraying body seems to crave, and the hero, who badly wants her, stops the action, and it’s supposed to position him, it seems, as an impressively moral man. Like, overcoming his animal desires is above average thing to do. Or I think of that awful American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey is this hero for not screwing a teenager. That almost normalizes bad behavior as much as anything. Where am I going with this?

    Oh, but Jessica, can you say more about this:

    So I was actually wondering if we could possibly look at what’s happening as a liberatory recasting of this patriarchal story about male aggression-female acquiescence. A kind of womanist (if not feminist?) reappropriation.

    I sort of want to understand it better, what you’re getting at.

  26. What Wells gets absolutely right is that the romance novel is a female forum and if you’re going to take anything from it at all, it’s going to be a female perspective. The question is, what do you take from it?

    My feeling is that you have to be very careful what you look at romance novels as being evidence of. I’ve said before that I think that a lot of romance readers read romance for the emotional highs and lows rather than, say, for a specific trope or fantasy (such as a rape fantasy). It’s more about the journey for some readers, more about the peaks and troughs encountered on the way. The specific way in which the author takes the protaganists from despair to joy. And certain tropes and pairings are going to be more conducive to that than others.

    The sexual intensity of the heroes you refer to in your post is often, in my view, an expression of that desire for the emotional hit (emotional porn, as I’ve called it before) on the part of the reader rather than than the reader specifically relating to wanting to be as keenly desired as the heroine is desired by the hero.

    So do romance novels really tell us anything about women’s views about rape or date rape? Me personally, I don’t think they do much.

  27. Well it’s late, but I’m with Marg in thinking typically these comments by the historical hero are an aberration in his experience of his own sexuality. I’ve always taken them as evidence that the heroine is THE ONE because she affects him this way. And typically I fall for this device because he does control himself, despite his own doubts about his ability to do so.

    I have a hard time evaluating these scenes and my acceptance of them in real life because in the novel I’m in both character’s heads. So would it be sexy to me if a hero seduced a woman, and she was silent through the entire thing but not resistant. Not without her positive response. But I have the benefit of knowing what the woman is thinking and if she is even mildly not interested the scene does not work for me.

  28. […] of Racy Romance Reviews has written a very thoughtful piece on “uncontrollable hero lust” in Romance, which she compares to the imagery of the runaway train. Laura Vivianco also linked to the post at […]

  29. Heloise,

    Your point about us knowing what is in the heroine’s mind is so important. We have an advantage the hero (or the jury) does not. I think that point, added to the earlier ones (from Marg, Carolyn Jean, Mojo) that the hero is like this only with the heroine, are very important in contextualizing these quotes.

    Carolyn Jean,

    My point about subversive meanings in these texts is an attempt to be open to the possibility that romance doesn’t (only) thoughtlessly replicate pernicious gender norms, but also creates a space where women may safely test out and subvert those norms.

    One of the things feminist theory has had to face in the last 20 years is the fact that even with institutional and legal barriers removed, a lot doesn’t change in terms of attitudes, so a lot doesn’t change in terms of the old age problems sexism [too simple, I know] causes (lower wages, less political power, women subject to more violence, etc.) So feminist theorists have turned to the way norms are conveyed not in these explicit and overt ways but in all kinds of texts, like pop culture texts such as film and television, and even bodies themselves are texts in this sense. Comcomitantly, one of the strategies feminist theorists have explored, in addition to the usual strategies of looking at laws, at government, etc., is introducing counter myths, counter images, etc., to free up rhetorical or conceptual space to re-conceive gender ways that allow power to be distributed more fairly and more for the common good.

    In that context, I was wondering if women’s use (as authors and readers) of a myth like the myth of uncontrollable hero lust in romance may in fact represent taking a myth which perpetuates male power and subverting it by recontextualizing it as a part of respectful loving lovemaking in which male and female power is distributed fairly. I mean, he says he cannot stop, but it’s not actually uncontrollable in any of those scenes. It’s very interesting to me that this particular myth occurs in contexts in which the sexual scenario is at the absolute height of respect, open communication, and and emotional attunement (say what you want — these heroes are amazing in bed) — the exact opposite of the rape scenario.


    Yes, I agree that reading meaning into female production and consumption of rape myths is very hard to do. There’s the horizontal problem that Laura and Robin have pointed out — what something means to one reader may differ for another. And then there’s the vertical problem — how do we go from our minds to the text and to the world at large?

    I agree that we need to be very careful with both these vertical and horizonatal problems.

    But I am unsatisfied with that as an answer to the question of how romance relates to women’s interests (again, with the acknowledged need to contextualize which romance, which women, which interests).

    I think the recognition of how hard this is has to be the FIRST thing we do, not the LAST.

    And I think that romance lovers have to acknowledge that if we can’t make easy and fast assumptions about negative impacts of romance on women, then we can’t make easy and fast positive ones either. So claims that romance taught us about sex or love, or that romance gives us hope, or that romance taught us everything we ever needed to know (as in the new Smart Bitches column) should, in fairness, be subjected to the same scrutiny.

  30. In further restrained, reasoned, not exuberant support of your ‘subverting the uncontrollable male lust myth’ paragraph, consider that these comments are often a way for the heroine to actually control the action without verbal contribution. He says, don’t touch me or I won’t be able to control myself, and often she touches him. 🙂 But either way, she decides whether to push his buttons or not.

    There are certainly examples where this conceit is not used so (upon reflection) positively, I know I’ve read one recently where hero did a good job arousing virgin, then when he got to penetration, he lost her and just completed with excuse that he couldn’t pause now. He goes back to work later (The Scarlet Spy, I think) and meets her needs much more thoroughly but there you are.

    But like any attempt to take the specific to the general, close reading and contextualization of the uses of this myth is time consuming and difficult but important. The devil is in the ‘counting’ or ‘weighting’ as you jump to the fun generalizations.

  31. Jessica, my long and wandering response is up on Access Romance if you are (or anyone else is) interested:

    Despite all the problems inherent in generalizing about the genre and about male sexual aggression, I *do* think there are subversive and female empowering elements in the use of the “uncontrollable hero lust” tropes in Romance. Just as there are reactionary or regressive elements, too, IMO.

    My sense is that what counts is our *attention* to how we continue to generate these tropes, a more thoughtful consideration of what IMO too often amounts to the automatic mimetic repetition of various tropes through the genre. As long as we’re talking about it, in other words, we’re okay. As soon as we stop thinking and questioning, though, we’re abdicating more than just our right and ability to critically question the genre.

  32. I’m glad you’re still discussing this, as I’ve meant to get over here and comment.

    Consent is determined from the perspective of the man: the court has to be persuaded that the man believed, sincerely and reasonably, that the woman did not consent

    One important angle on this is whether men and women define consent differently, and men’s understanding of women’s speech. Have you read Deborah Cameron? I recommend The Myth of Mars and Venus and her earlier Verbal Hygiene.

    The Myth of Mars and Venus makes the case that men *do* understand consent in the same manner as women, but cultural myths give specious plausibility to excuses having to do with the woman’s communication skills (e.g. “She never came out and said NO”). This excerpt gives a few highlights of Cameron’s arguments:

    On non-consent that’s indirectly stated: “Some individuals – for instance, people with autism – may indeed find indirectness confusing …. Does Gray [author of Men Are From Mars] think that maleness is a disability? And if he really believes men cannot process indirect requests from women, how does he explain the fact that men quite frequently make indirect requests to women?”

    Describing a university tribunal over two accusations of rape: “Nobody asks him why he did not consider the possibility that by saying she was tired and then apparently falling asleep, MB was communicating that she wanted him to stop. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that someone who feigns unconsciousness while in bed with you probably doesn’t want to have sex.

    Cameron also points out that the advice to firmly say “NO” (and the subsequent question, “Did you make it clear?”) can be counter to what safety classes teach (don’t antagonize; stay alive).

  33. Thanks, Jessica for clearing that up! I wasn’t totally grocking the line of thought. Mmm, that is very interesting!

  34. Robin,

    Thank you for the link. (I am meaning to get over there and post. I wanted to see what others had to say first, though.) If I can take even a teensy bit of credit in motivating you to write on this, I feel this whole blog’s existence has been justified.


    Thank you for the link. In the Taslitz book I mention in the post, he has a chapter on gendered language which is relevant to Pineau in in specific way: silence. While women are supposed to be chatty and men silently putting up with it, in fact, all the data shows that men command more verbal space in public. Given this, he asks what we can infer when women are silent in date rape scenarios.

    Although date rape, by Pineau’s definition excludes include violence or its threat, your point that in sexual assault situations silence may be warranted is excellent.

    Carolyn Jean,

    Thank you for giving me a reason to consult the Urban Dictionary today. 😉

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