CW: As the title of this post implies, there will be discussion of rape in romance novels and graphic description of rape scenes.
This weekend, romance Facebook got its weekly friend-and-acquaintanceship destroying controversy. It centered around a book–that I won’t name–which featured a plotline that goes like this: a survivalist-style woodsman and unrepentant murderer finds a young female college student he likes. He drugs her, kidnaps her, ties her to his bed, rapes her, and of course, by the end of the book, she’s realized that being owned by this sexy “alpha” hero is far preferable to the life she’d planned for herself, and falls in love with him.
You’d think this would outrage me to the point of bringing back my “Don’t Do This, Ever” column, but it doesn’t. This has sadly become a trend that readers clamor for. The days of the “Alpha” hero who asserts his dominance over the heroine through his forceful personality, yet surprisingly tender heart, are over. The new “Alpha” is the one who commits numerous felonies in pursuit of you and feels no remorse for having done so.
This particular case gained attention through the liberal application of drama within the erotic romance community. The author–who I won’t name–is rumored to have a long-standing feud with another author, against whom she made unsupported allegations of plagiarism. As outrage over this author’s rape-as-romance spread across social media, the accused plagiarist took action–by asking her readers to sink the book by contacting Amazon. After the call to have the book removed, readers tossed around the oft-used warning that “censoring” the book is a “slippery slope.” No censorship took place in this case; while Amazon chose to stop selling the book, it remained available from other retailers. No law was enacted to prevent the sale or possession of the book, which is available on the site once more, fitted with an alternate title and new, more mainstream cover. The slippery slope is a logical fallacy, and an unlikely scenario. Many books have been removed from Amazon for quality, formatting, or cover issues, as well as for content, and it has yet to result in a sweeping ban of erotica and erotic romance across the platform. There’s a lot of cash to be made selling erotic titles; it’s doubtful Amazon would yield those figures to their competitors. And if Amazon chose to no longer sell “dub-con” or “non-con” books, that would be their prerogative as a business, not a censorship move.
But the outcry over this act of “censorship” and the motives behind it reveal the disturbing thought process of some of the authors and readers of these types of books: any criticism of their fantasy is “judging” them, and any “judgment” is censorship. “Don’t judge people for what they want to read!” more than one Facebook post demanded. “Don’t tell people what they can and can’t enjoy.” But it’s not about what they are or aren’t allowed to enjoy. It’s the fact that fans of the rape-fantasy subgenre are able to so easily distance themselves from the subject of actual rape, to the point that their defense of their kink becomes active reinforcement of rape culture and blatant victim-blaming of real life survivors.
One GoodReads review for the book includes this passage:
After hearing the outrage over this book and talk of rape and the woman being unconscious, I expected something quite horrific, but really it wasn’t. There was no violence, he never lifted a hand to her and he did everything he could to care for her and give her everything she could ever want.
There was no violence, the reader asserts, because despite the fact that the hero uses horse tranquilizers to keep the heroine unconscious while he anally and orally violates her, he “did everything he could to care for her and give her everything she could ever want.” That the hero wouldn’t have had to “care for her” if he hadn’t drugged her and kidnapped her in the first place apparently never crosses the reader’s mind. Nor does the thought that “everything she could ever want,” to most women does not include captivity and forced “breeding,” as the book charmingly describes the hero’s ultimate goal.
“You can’t judge people for what they want to fantasize about!” was a rallying cry in defense of the book. But for all the insistence that readers instinctively understand that it’s just fantasy and they would never condone or desire such behavior in real life, GoodReads reviewers disagree. One says:
(Who doesn’t like a gorgeous bearded almost-savage hunk to take control and sweep you off your feet every day of your life, right?)
While another asks:
Where can I find one? [hero] was raised differently and saw the world differently. So going old school he found a woman …..and took her. Through patience most people wouldn’t have he brought her around to his way of thinking.
If you can suspend your beliefs in right and wrong and just read to enjoy the story you will find [hero] just as hot and sexy as the rest of [author]‘s men and be glad she came up with such a hot and fun story to share with us
The reviewer clearly states that she suspended her “beliefs in right and wrong” in order to enjoy the story, but still found the hero “hot and sexy,” as well as “patient.” Ah, yes, that rare, patient man who, in lieu of conversation and the usual getting-to-know-you process, jumps the gun and kidnaps you instead.
Another reader goes so far as to deny that the drugging, kidnapping, and raping is the hero’s fault at all:
[Hero] is all alpha but he is a softy. I love how he see what he wants and goes after it (her). Is it kidnapping? Nope. She is telling the world here I am. The number one mistake most people make. If don’t want something to happen then don’t tell people where you at 24/7. Be smart. Be safe. She is lucky it was him and not someone with ill intense.
Yes, she’s lucky it wasn’t someone with “ill intense,” like a guy who would…kidnap her, drug her, and repeatedly assault her? If women didn’t want to be kidnapped, drugged, and raped, this review says, they should be smart. And if they’re not smart, then they apparently deserve what they get and should be thankful for it.
On Amazon, another reader praises the book for exposing the reality of what it takes to make a healthy relationship:
This story knocks any fluffy piece of writing out of the water with it’s basic and bare boned portrayal of what a man and woman truly need to survive happily…and a man not afraid to take what is his.
Again and again, readers and authors who were disturbed by the content of the book and reader response to it were told that their objections were harmful, sexually repressive, and childish. From an Amazon review:
Get past it. This book is hot.
Get past it, reader who may have experienced mental health consequences due to the content of the book that, even after republication under a different title, still bears no content warnings. It’s just rape, after all, a sin on par with bad grammar in the opinion of another reviewer:
Yes there is rape and a couple grammatical errors, but that’s it. There is a happy ending and it really is a great story.
The book was marketed as not just erotica, but an erotic romance with BDSM elements. Which re-opens an entirely different can of worms that BDSM just can’t seem to keep closed in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey; our cultural understanding of what does and does not constitute BDSM is now defined by readers of a specific subgenre of romance who have likely never engaged in or researched actual BDSM. In this case, that definition now includes actual rape, as opposed to consensual rape-kink.
At the end of the day, authors are free to write whatever fantasy strikes them. Readers are free to consume it. But those readers and authors must accept that others will not be silenced so they can enjoy their fetish without guilt. No matter how it may be dressed up as “non-con” or “dub-con,” these books are rape fantasy. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying rape fantasy–as long as that fantasy isn’t normalizing rape as a romantic aspiration, and as long as readers don’t reject the notion of rape being harmful just so they can flick their respective beans guilt-free. As long as that attitude persists in romance, people will judge readers and writers who contribute to that narrative. If you’re one of those readers or authors and that judgment makes you uncomfortable, well. That’s a whole lot of your problem.