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Romance writer Moriah Jovan notes a disturbing new trend among the youngsters in “Romancelandia” (that would be the realm of romance novel fan-dom). Women “who love romance novels” are mocking older romance novels for their fantastically retro covers, dated cultural references—-and rapist love interests. Not fair!
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a host of “rape romances” that are routinely sneered at by younger romance readers and/or people young to romance reading. The device is that the hero is cruel, arrogant, and (as I saw in a comment about my favorite one, written in 1974) he “rapes her until she loves him.” Sounds harsh now, right?
Yes. Raping a woman “until she loves him”—-shit, that could take forever!—-does sound pretty harsh. Kids today, with their expectations that the idealized coupling presented by the romance novel not involve incessant raping! Jovan?
Let me put this in some context. [Great -ed.] In the early 1970s, a lady named Nancy Friday interviewed women on the subject of their sexual fantasies and published them in a couple of books: My Secret Garden (1973) and Forbidden Flowers (1975), just at the cusp of the “rape romance.” Without taking Friday’s scholarship into account, I find it interesting that many women’s fantasies at that time featured rape prominently. I also find it fascinating that these books were published nearly simultaneously with the early rape romances and thus, probably didn’t inform each other.
Mind, this definition of “rape” is not a legal one; it’s a highly stylized one in which it allows the female to retain her Good Girl status while still A) having sex and B) enjoying it because the hero is a different kind of rapist: One who is attractive, who is uncontrollably attracted to the heroine, and who gets her off after he’s made it possible for her to have an out, i.e., “I was raped.”
Why did she need an out? Because, at the time, a woman’s enjoyment of sex (especially outside of marriage) was still taboo.
Jovan’s insight into why women were attracted to “a different kind of rapist” isn’t invalid. And the idea that women might turn to fantasies of sexual control in order to satisfy their own desires while wiggling out of societal constraints didn’t expire in the 1970’s.
But if young fans of mainstream romance novels now find this idea silly, outdated, and ripe for mockery, why not respect their own idea of what’s romantic? Shouldn’t we focus on the positives—-girls feeling comfortable expressing their desire for consensual sex—-instead of attempting to force young women to appreciate rape in context? Remember: The great sin these women are committing is nothing more than gentle mockery—-putting concerns like “I can’t believe that guy is so rapey!” on the same level as “I can’t believe they printed that ridiculous stallion on the cover!” or “I can’t believe they’re listening to Fleetwood Mac!”
Still, Jovan tries to convince young readers to appreciate the “zeitgeist” of the romance novel—-even though they’ve expressed a clear “unwillingness to go along with [it]”:
I’m not sure why there’s this unwillingness to go along with the zeitgeist of the time in which the book was written, but instead to apply today’s standards of fashion or technology or pop culture as markers of timelessness. We don’t expect that of our historical novels, so why do we expect it of “contemporary” romances that cease to be “contemporary” the moment the galleys are finalized?
I’m not a fan of romance novels myself, but I do think these vintage genre works can prove relevant to modern women—-just not in the way Jovan suggests. Young readers don’t just find the fashions and soundtracks of 70’s romance novels ridiculous—-they find the very romantic ideals they’re based on offensive. To me, that’s a sign that the role of women in sex and relationships is flexible, socially informed, and changing fast—-even in the relatively mainstream world of romantic paperbacks. That doesn’t mean we throw out vintage romance entirely—-Jezebel’s Sadie Stein, for example, has done some great work discussing the trappings of dated romance novels from a modern context—-but if we’re not allowed to mock, why would we even read the old stuff?
After all, romance novels are written to indulge women’s sexual and romantic fantasies. If the fantasies in the book—-like, you know, rapist boyfriends—-aren’t getting the job done anymore, what’s left to appreciate?