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.

carrey58

"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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