Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Saying No to the Hero: Rape Culture in Romance

I've been reading a lot of romance novels lately. My summer has mostly been a giant reading slump so far and they seem to be the only thing that I can get through. But it's lead me to pick up on a certain trend.

"Your mouth says no, but I bet your body says yes."

No. No. No.

This trope is something used by rapists. It's people who convince someone that they actually do want sex after they say no, because their body is responding. I think it runs along the same lines as the people who use the excuse that somebody orgasmed to prove it wasn't rape. If they enjoyed it, than how could it be? Well it can be, because rape isn't about not letting someone enjoy something. It's about dominating and humiliating a person. It's about power.

I don't think romance authors are endorsing rape or that they want their heroes - in the books I've read, generally - to be considered dominating or power mad. In fact, the most recent novel that made me notice this trend was written by a bestselling author who has always been pro-woman and whose books in the past have often tried to put woman in powerful roles. I don't think anything was meant by this comment, but it keeps popping up.

This also becomes worrying because of the types of books I tend to see this in. Generally, it's in historical romances, because that's most of the romance I read. And in most historical romances, the women are sexually inexperienced - often virgins or only have one other partner/encounter - because it's true to the times. And this line often pops up during one of the first sexual encounters between the heroine and the hero. Basically, she has no real experience over this, but doesn't mentally feel ready and says no. He says the line, proves his point, and the heroine stops putting up a fight because it feels good and she's never felt this before. She lets it happen, despite saying no and never verbally saying yes. And the hero never checks in with her again. Then the novel progresses and everything's fine and the two have more sex and live happily ever after, because that's romance!

There are exceptions, sure! The hero listens when she says no. He does come back and check in regularly for consent. In many cases, the line doesn't come up at all. But it's unfolded this way often enough for me to notice and worry, even though I still don't read THAT many romances a year (At time of writing, I'm up to 12 in 2015, largely due to the number of slumps I've had this year). And normalizing it in our culture - meaning our books - and showing it as part of a consensual relationship in a romance novel that ends with the two together can send the wrong message. It says that it doesn't matter if a person says no if they're physically responding to it. It says it's not assault or rape if you love the person who does it.

Many might see it as just a line in a book and think nothing of it, but if they see it often enough, the message is going to sink in, consciously or unconsciously. Which is especially worrisome since many young women learn about sex through romance novels (because where else are they going to learn besides porn and fanfic?). I just really feel uncomfortable with how often I've noticed this line, or something like it. And I hope I'm not the only one.



I really just wanted to add that I concur with everything Julie has said. I don't read a lot of the genre either but I do love it (like Julie, it's something that can help me through a reading slump) but of the romance books I have read? I see this crop up way too often.

The worst part is, I can love a book in spite of that -- and that's a problem. Because it shows how normalized it is to see characters be flippant about the importance of consent. We (or at least, I) have become so desensitized to it that something I should hate a book for doesn't hinder my overall enjoyment of it.

I said this to Julie already, but I think maybe the reason this is a thing that keeps cropping up in romances written by women is the same thing that makes people slut shame women -- we're still living in a society where women are often made to feel ashamed for being sexual. And so writers write these characters who are inexperienced and instead of just acting on their desires, they have to be seduced and convinced into it by men... They get to have sex, and enjoy sex, without fear of judgement.

There's also often that element of "you're not like other girls" from the male love interest that goes hand-in-hand with this (like, he likes that she isn't as willing as other girls, like those other girls were somehow inferior because they gave in too quickly or wanted to act on their desires). That's not okay either.

And I hate that that is a thing that women internalize, because we don't judge men in the same way and there's nothing wrong with being a "slut" (so long as it's all safe, consensual, and legal).

Or maybe I'm totally wrong. Maybe they're just aiming for historical accuracy? Or trying to cater to a certain type of fantasy? Who knows.

The TL;DR version: Julie is not alone in noticing this, and definitely isn't alone in having an issue with it.



  1. Excellent, much needed post. You've made some fantastic points - and this issue is something that really bothers me in the few romance books that I do read.

  2. Thank you for pointing this out! It's something that's been nagging at me too. It's awful that we've been conditioned to feel desensitized from this issue.



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