Ah, the ‘70s and ‘80s bodice ripper era…when men were men and women were raped. The romance community likes to filter it through a rose-colored rearview mirror, chased by alternating mild chagrin and feminist horror. But more than 30 years later, those misogynist underpinnings of forced seduction romance — mostly overpinnings, if we’re being honest — are alive and well. Be it the sheikhs and tycoons that populate the Harlequin Presents line, J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, the plethora of motorcycle club contemporary romance and club-owning Dom BDSM erotica or your Christian Greys and Gideon Crosses, the controlling alpha-male asshole protagonist hasn’t gone anywhere.
The argument one could make, of course, is that female characters have sexual agency in all of these books. They like being treated poorly (i.e. “challenged”) and told what to do as long as they get off and get their Happy Ever After. But that’s no different from old-school forced-seduction, than the sexual revolution happening on the page long before Kristen Ashley starting burning up the Amazon charts. It didn’t matter if a heroine got roofied and locked in a trunk or kidnapped and tied up in a wigwam, she always had an orgasm. The highly questionable, but tried-and-true, “No, no, no…yes!”
“It’s like crack!” a modern-day reader will say of a hero who slaps and taps asses with abandon. “It’s just fun!” another will add of a guy who makes women sign contracts and monitors what she eats. And these are just defensive excuses for what they flat-out enjoy, trying to downplay the appeal of Those Tropes. If you don’t think women in the 1970s were saying similar things about Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss, you’re kidding yourself. Whether it’s Whitney, My Love and General Hospital‘s Luke and Laura or Claiming the Courtesan and Days of our Lives‘ EJ and Sami, the rhetoric is the same.
“It’s not anti-feminist if I like it” seems to be the subtext. “It’s not misogynist if it turns my crank. It’s not problematic if I pretend it’s a guilty pleasure.”
I think that shortchanges deeper explorations of women’s media and shuts down a lot of potentially interesting discussion of narrative tropes and kinks. It also creates an imbalance, a hierarchy, between pseudo-intellectual readers and those who just read for pleasure and don’t turn a critical eye to every book: “I can read and enjoy the Greek billionaire ordering the virgin around because I took three Women’s Studies classes in college and donate money to RAINN. I’m not That Reader.” Oh, yes, you are. Own it. And talk about it. Don’t pretend the modern-day romance reader is any more liberated/aware/superior than the first person who got tingly when a pirate ravished an unwilling maiden.
If it’s anti-feminist and you like it, talk about it. If it turns your crank, let’s examine why. If it’s problematic, don’t excuse it away.
Men are still men, and women are still raped.
It’s more important than ever to unlock that trunk and let the contents breathe.