Rape Disguised as Romance: Why I Stop Reading Most Romance Novels
Trigger Warning: Rape and Sexual Assault
When I was younger, I used to LOVE romance novels. I’d read at least 4-6 books a month. They shaped many of my ideas around romance, love, sex…I learned a lot from them. So you can imagine my shame/disgust/horror when I realized these books were romanticizing rape.
Or maybe you can’t. Rape is so normalized in society that people don’t know what constitutes rape. Is it forced penetration? With what? Does it count if it’s just a tongue? Or a finger? What if she says yes, then says no? What if you’re naked when she says no? What if you’ve both been drinking? What if, what if, what if.
It sounds ridiculous, especially once you learn that romance novels are a billion-dollar industry with 84% of its audience being women. One would think that women wouldn’t support books about raping women, right? Well, when rape is packaged as romance and discussions around rape in a society centered around protecting men? Then yeah, we get rape books sold as love stories.
I didn’t think it was rape at the time. I mean, I’d been conditioned to think that rape was pretty straightforward. If a guy forced you to have sex when you didn’t want to, that was rape. But what counted as force? In my mind, they had to pin me down and I would not be able to force them to stop. There would be a layer of violence against me that was a part of it. I was sure I’d have scars, or bruises or something.
But that didn’t cover coercion. Or drugs. Or even marriage, where I was under the impression that I can’t say no. Because that’s the issue, right? That in order for it to be considered rape, I have to explicitly and unequivocally say “no” when there are a crap-ton of non-verbal ways of saying “yes.” And as a woman, it is my responsibility to figure out how I am saying “yes” to every guy who shows me the tiniest amount of attention. It is my responsibility. I mean, it’s not but that’s not what people will have you believe.
It’s not something I would learn reading books, watching TV and movies, or listening to the people around me. And let’s not forget the romance books that I loved.
I’ve read books where women are abducted off the street, held captive, drugged, and then raped by the hero, who she later falls in love with and marries, legitimizing everything he’d done to her.
I’ve read books where the woman was captured, tied up, and sexually assaulted as a form of torture until she is overcome by her arousal and needs to be with the “hero.” They later get married and live happily ever after.
There are books where the woman is sold to a slaver, raped, and then marries her “master” because that’s the dream, apparently.
How about the books where the male romantic lead threatens physical, emotional, and sexual violence against the female romantic lead…and they, of course, get married and have a bunch of children, because that’s logical.
Then there are the books where women are controlled by sex and submissive to men because…oh who cares.
It all comes back to women being treated as property, children, and sex slaves…all at the same damn time, a treatment that supports the perception that somehow women secretly “want it but don’t want to admit.”
Here is a list of actions that are considered implicit sexual consent:
- Walking alone
- Getting abducted
- Wearing attractive clothing
- Wearing bright colors
- Wearing baggy clothing which creates mystery that must be explored
- Talking to a man
- Drinking alcohol
- Being alone with a man
- Smiling at a man
- Wearing a short skirt
- Kissing a man
- Making eye contact with a man
- Being attractive
- Agreeing to go on a date with a man at any time in your life
- Getting drunk
- Falling asleep in the company of a man
Ignorance of implicit consent is not considered to be an excuse. Somehow being sexually assaulted is YOUR fault because you did something that said “yes” even if you never uttered the word. And you can’t change your mind because you agreed at some point and that consent is forever.
And that’s before we even get into reporting an assault, where all of the above “consent” questions are put on the table and the victim has to somehow prove that none of it was consent.
Did I mention that this is reinforced at every level in American society and is difficult to prove?
So now, when I read romance books, most of which are marketed to and purchased by women, I have to give it the side-eye because what the fuck?
Why are we buying shit that markets the acceptability of rape?
Why are people writing shit that promotes rape?
Why are we promoting and defending rape?
In 2014, California passed the Affirmative Consent Sexual Assault Bill, also known as the “Yes means Yes” law, getting rid of the vagueness around sexual consent. People had issues with the law, claiming that there was gender bias and that it treated all men like rapists, but that begs the question - what exactly makes a sexual encounter rape? And the answer is uncomfortable, even for me.
For most of my life, I considered sexual aggression from men to be normal. As I got older, I tried to mitigate this expectation by only dating men who I knew listened to me and cared what I thought. When I was younger, I didn’t think about this and I found myself in situations where sexual attention was forced on me. At the time, I didn’t think it was wrong despite knowing that I didn’t want it. And, like many women, I felt it was my fault because at some point in the evening I indicated that I was interested and then lost interest. Or I felt like I owed them something for leading them on. And while I didn’t want any sexual contact, the normalcy of submitting to something I didn’t want with a person I didn’t want to do it with was easier to reconcile than rejecting him, running away. And to this day I can’t call what happened rape because even though they never asked what I wanted, I never said “no.”
I also never said “yes.”
So even though I didn’t want to do it, I submitted to the social expectation that I believed was a part of romantic relationships. I felt powerless in the situation and was ashamed of it. And even years later, on the other side of that life, I still wrestle with the pain of that time and ask myself if it was rape. I didn’t feel physically threatened. I wasn’t physically restrained or held captive by anything but my own social expectations. In the sea of what is consent, I don’t fit the profile of a rape victim. But I did something I did not want to do, with someone I did not want to do it with and I still struggle with what that means.
The worst part is knowing I’m not alone. When I bring up the issues of rape, so many women tell me a story of this one guy, or this one time where they found themselves submitting to an act that they didn’t want. Stories like mine, or stories of partying with someone and waking up unsure if they’d had sex. Or stories of trying to get out of situations where they were interested in getting to know a guy but they felt the expectation of more and just…let it happen. Or stories of women who never indicated anything but he wanted it and was stronger and forced it.
Stories of first dates, boyfriends, husbands, friends, acquaintances. Stories of pain. Stories of unreported rape.
Last year, some guy wrote an article about how he doesn’t need sexual consent lessons. He felt they were overkill and that he was smart enough to know what consent is. That same year, Jezebel wrote a story about a reddit thread asking sexual assailants (i.e. rapists) for their side story. The take-away? These men didn’t know they were committing rape. They didn’t realize they were violating another person, mainly because they didn’t see the woman as an individual whose opinion mattered.
Rape is a lot subtler than what they show on TV. It is a form of abuse that can be emotional and physical, gentle and violent, dehumanizing and powerful, coercive and indecisive, subtle and savage. And most of all, shameful. Rape, like everything, is not just one thing, and neither are its victims.
When you grow up reading stories about how commonplace it is for men to talk you into sex, pressure you to have sex, force you to have sex, you think, “well, I guess this is normal. It’s what they write about. Why don’t I enjoy it like they seem to do in the books, movies, or on TV?”
Now when I read a romance book with a romantic lead who enacts this type of behavior, he’s not a romantic lead. He’s a rapist. The author is someone who supports rape culture and the abuse of women and the publisher is reinforcing a system that keeps women in danger of sexual violence.
Romance novels have taught me that rape can be packaged and marketed as romance...and is a billion dollar lie.