Runaway Train: Uncontrollable Hero Lust in Romance

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“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.

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"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?

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Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 6:58 am  Comments (34)  
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“Come for me, baby”: orgasm on command

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Why is this phrase (and its variations) so ubiquitous in romance? You don’t believe me? Well, here’s a list complied ONLY from my bookshelf of maybe 30 titles. I bet you can think of many more.

1. Futuristic Romance: “Again” he demanded, dragging her head by her hair  and plundering her mouth. “again, goddamn it.” Naked In Death, J. D. Robb

2. Scottish Historical Paranormal: “You’re there, sweet leaf. Come. … Come for me.” Immortal Warrior, Lisa Hendrix

3. Romantic Suspense: “Yes, Maggie. Come for me, honey.” Giving Chase, Lauren Dane

4. Erotic novel: “Come for me”, he whispered.  Dirty, Megan Hart

5. Paranormal romance/Urban fantasy: “Come for me, Jane.”  Lover Unbound, J.R. Ward

6. Erotic Romance: “Come for me, then, Miranda, baby. Right now.” Market For Love, Jamaica Layne

7. Historical Romance: “Let go.” he panted, grazing his teeth across her throat. “Give in.”  To Have and to Hold, Patricia Gaffney

My main problem with it is overuse, but there are others I can mention. Like its use in a couple whose relationship doesn’t call for it. Its tendency to take me out of the story by thinking “Oh no! What if she can’t?” And the feminist objection that is too obvious to state.

Some romance mysteries are easy to solve. For example, we know the Dairy Council of America conspired with RWA to insert the word “milking” in every orgasm scene, with extra cash payments for the use of  “creamy” (which has made erotica authors rich, naturally).

But I can’t figure out how “come for me” became de rigueur. Did a memo go out from the Ministry of Heroine Hazards, warning of dire results if heroines are allowed to come without being told to? Or was it the Office of Alpha Hero Protection that issued the dictum (heh) that in order to enhance Alphaness, heroes must control even this aspect of lovemaking?

Use of this phrase doesn’t make me dislike a book: all of the above are in my house right now for a reason, after all. But I really feel it’s time to get creative!

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 8:12 pm  Comments (32)  

A Change in Blog Policy

Readers of this blog know that one of my goals is to link more reviews together than is usually done. I think it’s unfortunate, in a way, that the online romance community has flourished as series of separate fiefdoms (blogs) rather than a big town hall (fora).  Thanks to Google reader and conscientious blog hopping, we do all manage to get around, but when it comes to posting reviews, they are often islands unto themselves.

The result is that, even on the big blogs where everybody can be found on one thread, conversations about books tend to be conducted the way some professors run their classes: one main speaker holding court and several students talking one at a time to her, but not to each other.

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Published in: on November 4, 2008 at 10:02 am  Comments (3)  
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When Play Becomes Work

Ok, know I said this was just a hobby, and this was technically true for about 3 months. Longer, if you date my interest in romance back to March 2007, which is when I read my first one.

But I have always been interested in vampires, and when I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse books, it was all over.

I submitted two conference abstracts today. I have no idea whether they will be accepted, of course. And if they are not, I will simply delete this blog entry and pretend none of this ever happened. And the usual caveat is that they could have been much better if I had more time. But as a mentor once told me, “Your best work is the best you produce in the time you have.”

The first one is for the Popular Culture Association annual conference in April in New Orleans. That’s one venue where many of the romance academics from Teach Me Tonight share their work.  I was limited to 250 words, a real killer. Here it is:

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Published in: on November 1, 2008 at 3:48 am  Comments (4)  
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Top 10 Romance Blog Mysteries

Can you help a newbie with some of these blogger mysteries?

10. Whatever happened to Paperbackreader.net? One day it was there and the next day it was g

9. Who is the person who started Snark Underground (Too chicken to link to it. It scareth me greatly.) and why?

8. Who is Dionne Galace and how is she related to a person named “BAM”?

7. I recently figured out that the women who run the busiest romance blogs also have day jobs. So what explains their ability to do it all?

a. Adderall

b. A secret army of Oompah Loompahs hired away (by the promise of higher wages and their eventual return to their native land) from Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory

c. They don’t. “They” are actually teams of Brooks Brothers suited men named Mr. Smith who were trained by the patriarchy to taunt all of us average women with their seemingly effortless output. (And if we say anything about it, they shall taunt us a second time).

6. Why are there so many locked or empty fora at All About Romance? Did I miss something really nasty and awful? And why do I actually kinda regret that??

5. Why doesn’t Azteclady have her own blog so I don’t have to chase her reviews all over the place?

4. Which group of romance bloggers would prevail in a wrestling match over their favorite book (if you have a dual membership, you have to choose one)?

a. The librarians

b. The medievalists

c. The lawyers

d. The aspiring authors

3. The Romance Reader says that it is “the only Internet site offering over 7,000 candid reviews of current romantic fiction”, but All About Romance says that it offers  “the smartest reviews (more than 7,000 of them!) you’ll find anywhere. Both claims cannot be true. So which one is?

2. Which next book would romance review bloggers be most willing to trade their first born child to get (this one is really four riddles wrapped in a mystery):

a. The next Laura Kinsale

b. The next Lisa Valdez

c. The next paranormal romance (as opposed to urban fantasy) from JR Ward

d. The next Judith Ivory

1. Who is Mrs. Giggles?

Published in: on October 29, 2008 at 6:14 pm  Comments (18)  

Why Exactly Are Vampires Alluring?

Having just finished the first Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Until Dark, and being partway through the second, it strikes me that there’s something very unusual, in my romance reading at least, about Sookie’s attitude towards her vampire boyfriend: she’s pretty realistic about the limitations of the relationship.

Sookie often reminds us that Bill is cold to the touch, he’s ghostly pale, and he has an out of date hairstyle that he can never alter. She can’t rest her head against him and hear his heart beating or feel the reassuring expansion of his chest as he breathes. He cannot have children. He doesn’t eat, and he doesn’t care for the smell of food. Sookie has to watch what she eats, because Bill can’t stand the smell of certain things, like garlic, on her person. Not surprisingly, she also finds his diet unappetizing. She’s tired all the time from the late nights with Bill. They’ll never walk hand in hand in the sunlight, take a beach vacation, attend a friend’s wedding, a loved one’s funeral, or indeed do anything together during the day. His nocturnal lifestyle has so far prevented him from having a career or productive work. And, while Sookie has yet to ponder this sobering reality (so far in my reading), he’ll watch her age and die as he remains the young man he was when she met him.

Not all vampire mythologies are as thoroughgoing as Ms. Harris’s. Indeed, some seem to cherry pick the most romantic or appealing aspects of vampire lore, leaving the rest out. The vamps of JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood eat food, have healthy skin, and can procreate, and she always manages (in ways that range from the convincing to the “you’ve got to be kidding me!”) to give her human partners eternal life. But even when the human partner becomes vamp, there are a host of unappealing trade-offs.

Viewing Bill through Sookie’s eyes made me wonder why vampires have become so popular in romance. I mean, it could have been anything: pirates, ducks, mollusks, clones, genetically modified humans, great apes, or canteloupe.

But no, it’s vampires.

Why? Probably there are lots of forces (the turn of the millennium, terrorism, Paris Hilton, who knows) that have led to a renewed interest in vampires in the broader culture, and the folks who put on the Melbourne conference in the above poster would be able to say more. But when it comes specifically to romance, I have some ideas:

1. Power. Vamps tend to be powerful, and are very much like the typical human alpha hero. In this sense, they are just like lairds in kilts, dukes with aquiline noses, or the muscle bound SEALS/cops/billionaires etc. that populate contemporaries. They’re the new alpha. (And this explanation works whether we are saying female readers imagine being loved by a powerful being, or image themselves as the powerful being.)

1b. Un-PC. In fact, you can argue that making a hero a vamp gives authors and readers “permission” to enjoy the un-PC fantasy of being dominated by a crude and boorish hero. (Not all vamps are like this, but you know what I mean). Readers often remark that they let a vampire get away with behavior they wouldn’t excuse in a human man. Think of Rhage cornering Mary against a wall in Lover Eternal, or Mikhail forcefully, um, detaining Raven in Christine Feehan’s Dark Prince, or the many examples, as in Lara Adrian’s Kiss of Midnight, of that trademark vampire technique of sleep-rape.

2. Sex. In real life, anemia can cause a loss of sex drive, and if that doesn’t do it, death certainly will.  But vampires are sex machines. Authors exploit the metaphor of blood as the elixir of life, drawing parallels between blood lust and lust. In most of the vampire romances I’ve read, exchanging blood is (or can be) incredibly emotionally significant, and an ultra powerful aphrodisiac, incomparable to regular old human sex, regardless of how adventurous. Maybe 21st century readers are so inundated with sexual imagery in every day life that the rise of vamp romance represents a ratcheting up of sex necessary to achieve the same narrative power a kiss in the old regencies would have.

3. Darkness. Superman is powerful. And all kinds of good guys can be sexy. But vampires are powerful, sexy bad boys. We tend to think of dark characters as more interesting, more complex. We want to unravel them. Maybe the vampire bad boy is the new rake in an era when sexual promiscuity is not all that remarkable and can no longer serve as a marker of a tortured soul. They transgress many of the most central human taboos. One way to look at social mores or moral rules is as strictures, keeping us enslaved in a way. But vampires have a freedom that can be very appealing.

3b. Eternal life. This represents the ultimate transgression. It’s hard to define what make a human being a person, and one of the things I have always found fascinating about vampire lore is the way it poses this question to us. None of the vampire romances I have read have dealt with what seems to me to be a monumental transition between having a finite amount of time on earth and being immortal. This may be because we are limited to conceptualizing immortality as “a regular human life plus more years”. But that doesn’t begin to cut it. Think about the way your mortality provides a horizon for making meaning in your life. I tend to think eternal life would make a person’s life unrecognizable in ways I cannot even articulate.

But … we have a real fear of death and a very hard time at the end of life, especially here in the US. So I think the appeal of eternal life as a fantasy — the h/h will truly NEVER be apart — is a very real part of the draw.

Can you think of the others I’m missing??

Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 2:44 am  Comments (11)  
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Audiobooks: Reading, or Cheating?

This is from a column last month in Slate:

For all the column inches downloaded to Kindles this year about how electronic books will someday replace traditional ones, little has been made of the steady rise of another rival to the printed word: audiobooks. Nearly $1 billion worth were sold last year, meaning 15 percent of all books sold these days are the kind that read themselves.

I started listening to audiobooks in 2005 when I trained for a triathlon and was doing cardio for a gazillion hours a week (In case you’re wondering, I came in dead last. Like, the officials having to put down their burgers and dig their stopwatches out of their duffel bags last. But that didn’t stop me from referring to myself as a “triathlete” for at least a full year afterwards.). During that period, I listened to all the Harry Potter books on audio, and if you’ve ever heard the Jim Dale recordings, you know they set the gold standard for audiobooks.

When I started reading romance in 2007, it seemed like the perfect genre to try on audio, and I have had some pretty good luck. There’s nothing sexier (to my ears, anyway) than a deep Scottish brogue, and the male narrators of Nora Roberts’ Born in Fire and Karen Marie Moning’s Beyond the Highland Mist certainly had it goin’ on, as they say (the latter winning the 2008 Audie Award for best romance. Here’s a TRR article on Audies in Romance). Anna Fields does a great job with Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s books. And the female narrators of Megan Hart’s Dirty and Broken were terrific, perfectly capturing Elle and Sadie’s modern voices. But the best has to be Johanna Parker’s southern gal Sookie Stackhouse in Dead Until Dark: she’s perfect!

On the other hand, female narrators can have a tough time with male voices. Dan in Dirty sounded like a raspy voiced perv, and vampire Bill Compton sounds like an emotionless sociopath. For their part, male narrators pitch their voices higher to sound feminine, which often makes the female characters sound angry or hysterical. Racial issues are even trickier. How does a white narrator determine what a black character sounds like? (For more on this topic, read the Slate article or listen to When Audiobooks Jar the Ear, from NPR, September 2008. And if you’re looking for a good list of reliable romance narrators, check out this AAR thread).

But putting aside the question of whether it is well done, I’m wondering if listening to a romance audiobook is as good as reading it, or is it second best, or something even worse?

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Published in: on October 17, 2008 at 7:34 am  Comments (5)  
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Why Glomming May be Bad for Your Author-Reader Relationship

Or, Three Things I Learned From Library Thing

I just started setting up my Library Thing library. Gosh that’s fun!

Unfortunately, my blogging platform will not allow me to put that neato set of book covers in my sidebar (grrrrr….), so I had to do it in the makeshift way you see below and to the right. But you can click on the link and check out what else I’ve read in the past 18 months of romance insanity (although I’m not finished setting it up yet).

The process of entering my reads all at once made a few details about my reading habits show up that I normally wouldn’t have noticed. For one thing, when the hell did I read all of those Sherrilyn Kenyon books? I mean, I’ve read 7. Seven! That’s more than any other author, even authors I absolutely adore like Loretta Chase and Jennifer Crusie!

For another, I am pretty fickle. I clearly have no compulsive need to start a series at the beginning or to read it straight through. Kresley Cole’s paranormals? I’ve read books 1, 3, 4 and 5. Nalini Singh’s Psy/changeling series? Books 1, 2, and 4. I’ll read the first and third books in a trilogy, and not in that order. Or, as in JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga, I’ll trail off in the middle of the series and never return to it.

But here’s the most surprising thing: glomming is apparently not good for my relationship with an author. I was inputting books and thinking back to how much I liked them. The first Crusie books I read were Bet Me and Welcome to Temptation and I loved both of them. But then I glommed her, and my affection for each book I read diminished slightly, until the last two (Don’t Look Down and Crazy For You) were DNFs. The same thing happened with Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons, and with Susan Elizabeth Phillips. By the time I got to SEP’s Breathing Room, I had read 4 or 5 of her other books, and I was just SEP’ed out. I have Natural Born Charmer in my TBR pile but no idea when or if I will get to it.

Why is this? Possibly it has a lot to do with the fact that I read the best books first, based on reviews and the AAR’s top 100, for example.

But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I’ve wondered in my reviews whether it’s fair to make a great author compete against herself, and I am certainly not the only person to do that. We often say things like, “Well, [insert your favorite author here] on her bad day is better than most of them on good days.” But when I read 3 or 4 or 5 of the same author’s books in a row, I am forced to compare them to each other. Perhaps if I had stuck a book by a newer author or in a different genre in between all those Bridgertons I would have liked them all, individually, more.

I’m thinking that glomming is not good for my relationship with an author, and although sometimes the urge is irresistable, I’m going to try to pace myself from now on … for both our sakes.

Published in: on October 10, 2008 at 12:09 am  Comments (15)  
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Is a Book Review Just One Person’s Opinion?

“Readers are the best source for why a story works”

–Joey Hill

Are book reviews just opinions, like a preference for pastels, or bondage, or spicy food? Many authors seem to think so:

In an article for AAR written in 2000, Adele Ashworth writes:

“I think it’s safe to say that all authors care immensely about their readers, and write every single book in the hope of pleasing every single one of them. That isn’t possible, of course, when we’re talking about something subjective. … [E]verybody’s taste is different, including mine.”

And this from an Anon author in response to Ms. Ashworth:

“Here’s how I look at it: I get a review from Reviewer A, who reviews at a tough site that prides itself on telling it like it is, who I don’t know from Adam and, as far as I know, has no reason to suck up to me. She enjoys the book and says lovely things about it. I get a review from Reviewer B, who reviews at a tough site that prides itself on telling it like it is, who I don’t know from Adam and, as far as I know, has no nefarious plans to wreck my career. She hates the book and says unlovely things about it.

What transports Reviewer A into ecstasy absolutely incenses Reviewer B. What bugs the crap out of Reviewer B doesn’t even cause Reviewer A to bat an eyelash. Both are normal, intelligent people who believe they’re right and stand by their claim.

(Repeat this with Reader A and Reader B)

What does this ‘teach’ me, the author?

It teaches me that Reviewer A likes my book and Reviewer B doesn’t like my book.”

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Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 1:02 am  Comments (24)  
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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.

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Published in: on September 30, 2008 at 11:47 pm  Comments (4)  
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