Last week, I read a book that depicted the hero raping the heroine at their second meeting, and the scene was presented as romantic and pleasurable for the heroine. This hero walked into the hotel room, intending to rape her, and he did so. After removing her from that room (she was still naked and unconscious), he took her to his apartment and raped her again. Later, the hero decides that the heroine had asked for it. This sort of plot demonstrates a blatant disregard for anyone’s dignity, including that of the hero.
This was just one book I had intended to review. But after I read it, I just couldn’t review it. It started out well, but in the end, there was just too much wrong with it, both with its overall agenda and the myriad of plot and character holes. All the characterization broke once the rapes began; suddenly the hero became cold, harsh and possessive, and this is because the writer had fallen into the stereotypical dom template. It was obvious.
In response to this book, I posted on my Facebook timeline and called for these writers to get a good editor who can help them write a romance without presenting rape scenes as romance. This fiction is not romance; it is rape fantasy, and misconstruing it as romance means that readers may be inadvertently buying this kind of fiction and finding out very quickly that it has nothing to do with romance. They’ve purchased rape fantasy instead. It also represents a spread of sexism and rape culture into our society.
If a rape is depicted, it is fundamentally dishonest to depict it as an experience that is entertaining; the effect of such a thing normalizes and trivializes rape. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of rape culture is ‘a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.’
The proponents of rape as romance converged like zealous cult followers, enraged at the criticism of their leader and their favorite books, spewing out insults about me personally and about my work. But they presented some arguments, when they weren’t insulting me, as to why I should not call for the end of rape fantasy fiction being presented as romance. They argued that they should keep spreading this thinking into our culture, unopposed. These arguments were broadly that:
- There are thousands of books published under the banner of dark romance (non consent and dubious consent rape fantasies)
- Women have and want to read rape fantasies because they are sexually open
- Fiction and reality are totally different; it has no effect on the reader other than to entertain them. It is just a bit of harmless fun.
- If the market wants something, and the writer gives it to them, then all is good. Why worry?
- If we can’t have our rape fantasies, then we should not read about murder either.
- Rape fantasies have a bad reputation as a result of prejudice due to the fact that it is fiction written by women for women.
- This is just plain censorship of fiction that women want to read.
- Objections to rape depicted as romance are only made by women who have significant emotional baggage and don’t know what they’re talking about.
After I set down the ground rules that insults were not appropriate, they went off to bitch somewhere else. It was as though we were in the school yard, and they were huddling around the corner, laughing and validating each other’s arguments while belittling mine. Apparently, they pitied me. I couldn’t help but laugh. Their outright assumptions said more about them than about me. That kind of behavior is hurtful. For women who say that they are concerned about censorship and tolerance, their comments seemed to be full of malice.
I admit though, my sarcasm is biting; they definitely found that out.
So sarcasm and malice aside, let’s deal with one blurted and clichéd objection at a time:
There are thousands of books published under the banner of dark romance (non consent and dubious consent rape fantasies)
Yes, I understand that there are thousands of books published under this banner, but that doesn’t make it responsible publishing. Anyone can publish anything today. It doesn’t make it worthy of being published. All writing is valuable, but not everything is appropriate for publishing. Editors make judgments about writing and how appropriate it is for publishing all the time and this is not new.
Women have and want to read about rape fantasies because they are sexually open
Sexual fantasies are personal, and therefore, they are important. I’m not stopping readers from wanting or having rape fantasies. In fact, I can’t. I said that, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears.
I am well aware that women buy and like this kind of fiction. The issue I am concerned about isn’t whether these women are sexually open; this is beside the point when we’re talking about whether something should be published. If a woman is sexually open, I’m truly happy for them. However, my objections aren’t about these sexually open readers.
So let’s examine the reasoning behind this claim that women who have rape fantasies are sexually open, and therefore should be able to read their rape fantasies if they want. This idea of sexual openness is derived from a piece of research that I have in my personal library. It’s called ‘Women’s Rape Fantasies: An Empirical Evaluation of the Major Explanations’.
This research was first published in 2009, but later published again in 2012, and it is inconclusive as to the causes. It is likely that there is no single cause, and in reality, the cause is beside the point to this discussion. In one sense, delving into women’s private sexual fantasies is just one more way women are viewed through the clinical lens.
This research posits that desirability theory (a woman wants to be desired sexually) could also be a plausible explanation for rape fantasies, but like most research, it has its limitations. Without going into too much discussion about this research, we don’t need to feel as though we are so irresistibly desirable that men will rape us to show us how desirable we are. This is a patriarchal message.
The message of feminism is that we are worthy and sexually desirable with or without the affirmation of someone else’s perception. To predicate our worthiness based on someone else’s perception about our bodies and our sexual desirability is fraught with danger. Truly, it is. And yes, I will deal with the objection about the division of fiction and reality in a minute.
Openness to sex and the presence of sexual fantasies about rape doesn’t justify the publishing of rape scenes that are presented as romance. If this kind of thing turns someone on, that may well be a healthy thing for them, but it may also be a detrimental thing for someone else. Editors need to consider fiction from a myriad of different perspectives and angles. It is simplistic and irresponsible to justify the publishing of this fiction based on the fact that some women have rape fantasies.
To publish rape as romance on such a large scale is to unwittingly normalize rape and trivialize the true consequences of rape. These women who want to read rape fantasies may not realize the widespread adverse effects that this is having on our society as a whole. Men, young girls, and young boys are exposed to this kind of fiction too, and the results aren’t always great. Here’s a good example:
Let’s look at another example. This one doesn’t involve books, but a song. A song can’t hurt anyone. Can it? Well, here is what happened. New students at the Saunders School of Business were encouraged to chant about non consensual sex with underage girls and then keep the act secret. Apparently, this had been happening every year, and no one had said anything. They attributed this to the ‘widespread cultural attitude pervasive amongst student leaders in our culture.’
Another example. A male university student reportedly told police that he was re-enacting Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) with a woman he asked back to his apartment (she was not his girlfriend). He’d beaten her repeatedly even after she had asked him to stop. When the woman left the apartment, she called the police.
Why did this male student think that this was okay?
As I said, men read romance as well as women. At the very least, he’d seen the movies. The movie was released on 12 February 2015, and this event occurred on 23 February 2015. Why would writers of rape fantasy not be worried about this, since rape fantasy is worse than Fifty Shades?
Okay, okay. I hear: ‘But you can’t hold the writer responsible for someone else’s behavior!’.
If the author thinks that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, then they are being naïve. No, the author won’t know and can’t control who reads their fiction unless those readers make themselves known, but the authors and/or publishers will still understand that this does happens. Therefore, authors AND/OR publishers need to take some responsibility for their fiction and the effect it has on our society as a whole and moderate accordingly. Is that censorship? No, that’s corporate responsibility.
Society as a whole is more important than indulging sexual fantasies.
I am not shaming readers for wanting or having rape fantasies. If that includes you, there is nothing wrong with these fantasies. Rather, I am concerned for our society as a whole, which is currently in the grip of rape culture.
Yet, this fiction clearly gives credence to the theory that a woman’s ‘no’ actually means ‘yes’.
As I tried to explain over Facebook, misogyny and rape culture is everywhere. It is the reason that one American is raped every 98 seconds.
Surely, we should avoid fueling rape culture. It is a little more important than indulging someone’s fantasy. Since 1998, 17.7 million American women and 2.78 million American men have been raped. Those are the statistics that drives me to say that publishing rape fantasy repeatedly into our culture is irresponsible.
Fiction and reality are totally different; it has no effect on the reader other than to entertain them. It is just a bit of harmless fun.
That’s a simplistic view of what happens when a reader engages with fiction. The reality is that it is more complex, but this statement is half right. I’ll give them that.
A field called media reception research aims to discover how audiences respond and decode media messages. In their book Gender and Popular Culture, Katie Milestone and Anneke Meyer (2012, p. 157) describe research which identified that audiences don’t merely passively take in intended media messages; rather, audiences pick and choose the messages that suit their individual worldview.
Researchers looked at magazines which include sexualized depictions of women in semi-naked positions. Some male focus groups said that they loved the magazines, and it was just a bit of harmless fun. Other male focus groups said that they were shocked by the depictions, calling it sexist and shocking.
This would seem to support claims that the reader is totally responsible for the meaning that they attach to a book. However, this modeling of the way in which audiences respond doesn’t fit as well with fiction, especially gendered fiction (fiction written for either predominantly male or female audiences (Milestone & Anneke 2012)). When a reader engages with fiction, they become transported into that world, and they ‘experience emotions vicariously through the main character and can incorporate a range of accurate or inaccurate social information into their belief systems.’ (Marsh, Meade, & Roediger 2003 in Altenburger et. al 2017, p. 456).
Feminists understand fiction written for women contain situations that depict real-life situations and that women have the ability to decode the narratives appropriately (Milestone & Anneke 2012, p. 165). So in this instance, the depiction of a rape scene as romance might be seen as totally harmless if given to the right person.
But what happens when you give the same text to someone who doesn’t have the ability to decode the messages to come to the conclusion that it is just “harmless fun”? What happens when you give the same rape fantasy to a man? Most romance writers know that about 15% of their readership are men. What happens when a young boy reads the same text? Or a young girl? Will that young boy become a rapist? Will that young girl grow up to think of herself in terms of a passive victim? No, the human mind doesn’t work in a linear fashion, but if that boy is already predisposed to sexist and misogynist thinking (his worldview), a worldview which we know to be prevalent in our society today, then yes, that is a real possibility.
Clearly, you can see from the real-life examples given above, that individuals CAN decode a rape scene represented as romance to mean that violence and sex are the two ingredients necessary for love. Individuals CAN think that it is okay to chant about raping an underage girl. Individuals CAN think that a woman consciously agreeing to enter a man’s dorm room is a signal that it is okay to re-enact Fifty Shades of Grey. Clearly, rape fantasy fiction CAN be constructed by readers to mean that women enjoy being raped, that they are asking for it, and that ‘no’ actually means ‘yes’.
For some, it is little more than just a bit of fun. But for some, it has ramifications in real life. And as with many rapes, the incidents are under-reported.
Now, as another ‘sanctimonious’ woman commented here: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey, or more specifically the media’s unquestioning endorsement of it, isn’t going to create rapists or cause rape. Rapists cause rape. What the movie is going to do — and arguably already is doing — is create a target-rich environment for predators, encouraging women to accept abusive, harmful treatment because it’s characterized as kink.’
Clearly, books, movies, songs that make light or romanticize rape have a negative effect. It might also have a positive effect for those who have the critical thinking ability to decode it properly, but for those who don’t, this fiction caters to rape culture and stereotypical thinking.
If the market wants something, and the writer gives it to them, then all is good. Why worry?
Why worry? Because as I said, women and men are being raped. Because this fiction is written for titillation purposes. It reinforces stereotypes that men are strong and dominant, and that women are either weak and submissive, or they are cold, commanding and dominant, with no gray in between.
Woods (in Milestone & Anneke 2012, p. 165-166) argues that individuals use texts (books, television, social media, music), in negotiation with real-life experiences and relationships to construct their identities. So, for men who are constantly surrounded by misogynist messages like magazines with depictions of naked women, their identity is going to be influenced by these magazines. So too, this will be the case for women who constantly consume and endorse the romanticized versions of rape depicted in romance fiction. Because although each individual has an opportunity to reject or agree with the messages sent about the female and male victims and the female and male perpetrators, these stereotypical messages are included and used to negotiate the way they view themselves and the way they view others.
So, let me just tell you about one more piece of research. A paper published this year examined the attitudes of 747 female college students aged between 18 and 24 years of age (Altenburger et. al. 2017). They found during an online survey that about 46.2% of the respondents liked Fifty Shades of Grey. The survey included questions that allowed the respondents to rate the book on aspects that included how hot, romantic, depressing and abusive the book was, and then assessed the sexism displayed by the respondents. Those who found the book romantic were more likely to display sexist attitudes than the other respondents. Those who read at least the first book reported higher levels of ambivalent, hostile, and benevolent sexist attitudes than those who did not read books in the trilogy. Although, a causal relationship is not proven here, there were significant relationships between having read the books, thinking that they were romantic, and sexist attitudes. Discussion of the results suggest that the feminist struggle for equality has stalled and is being hindered by the depiction of male-female relationships in the broader social context. While the researchers admit a clear relationship is hard to prove, the bulk of research shows ‘an uptake of ideas and behaviors associated with consumption of media’ (Altenburger et. al 2017, p. 461). Given that we have seen the harmful effects of Fifty Shades of Grey, and this book isn’t actually as bad as the rape fantasies I am talking about, it’s not as simple as justifying the production of that product based on the desires of the market.
Of course, you can use fiction to spur discussion about gender roles and the media (Altenburger et. al 2017, p. 462), but there are obvious negative effects that occur from the widespread distribution of fiction that spreads stereotypical representations of both men and women. Perhaps the biggest victims of rape fantasy are men. They are the individuals that are being depicted as rapists. Presenting every single hero as a rapist can’t be good for anyone. That is a criticism of feminism today–that it casts every single male as a potential rapist. Well, this fiction does just that. In every single case of rape fantasy, the hero rapes the heroine, whether through ignoring dubious consent or ignoring non consent altogether.
As I tried to explain to these writers, it is just like supplying cigarettes or ice. At the height of it, the cigarette companies knew that nicotine was harmful, but there were no warnings, and there was widespread adoption of cigarettes in movies and other media. In the end, the cigarette companies were sued big time, and now, at least in Australia, cigarette boxes have huge warnings, showing visual representations of what that cigarette can do. So those who want to smoke can still buy cigarettes.
If we can’t have our rape fantasies, then we should not read about murder either.
Okay, this one didn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you wrote a book that romanticized murder, creating the impression that the experience would be pleasurable for the victim, depicting it as a fantasy as though the victim wouldn’t really be harmed, and then you distributed it to thousands of women and men, then I’d be saying that no thinking reader would value fiction that romanticizes murder. I’d also be against that type of fiction too because it is fundamentally dishonest.
Perhaps she’s thinking that I’m saying that rape shouldn’t be written at all. No, I’m saying it shouldn’t be glorified and romanticized and presented as romance. This fiction is fundamentally a fantasy about real-life horrific situations. While it entertains those who want their sexual fantasies fulfilled through fiction, it is fundamentally dishonest with readers who don’t yet have the critical thinking ability to be able to decode it properly. It offends readers who don’t want to watch a woman being raped and presented as entertainment, and it slowly confirms and reinforces sexism and rape culture in the very minds of its own readers.
Rape fantasies have a bad reputation as a result of prejudice due to the fact that it is fiction written by women for women.
Honestly, I’ve always experienced prejudice because I am a woman, but in this case, I can see good reasons why rape fantasies have a bad reputation; it’s not because it is fiction written by women for women.
As the proponents of rape fantasies said, this fiction is written to fill a need, to fulfill the sexual fantasies of the readers. It has no other purpose. I’m sure that there might be examples out there that have some depth and value, but for the most part, these rape fantasies are churned out at such a rate that their only function is to titillate. I wouldn’t call these books porn; that was their assumption entirely. They seemed to jump to that conclusion gleefully.
Rape fantasies generally will never garner any respect from the writing world at large. And if it does, then it is only because these books generate money. This is perhaps one reason why the romance banner, as a whole, struggles to maintain respectability within writing circles.
This is just plain censorship of fiction that women want to read.
I am not a proponent of censorship. In general, I find that it is human nature to cry out about censorship only when the human involved perceives that their rights have been infringed. If they were truly concerned about censorship, then they’d cry out every single day about the People’s Republic of China’s activities to censor content based on their political agenda. But no, they’re worried about getting their sexual fantasies fulfilled.
The problem with this argument is that these books aren’t saying anything new at all. They’re merely the repetition of rape fantasy scenarios where the heroine or hero is kidnapped, sold or forced into a situation where they are raped or their consent is in doubt. This fiction is not new; there is mounds of it around. It is merely written for titillation purposes.
If you like reading rape fantasy, that is fine, but don’t call it romance. It is not. It conflicts with romance’s overall raison d’être of the development of a love relationship. No one can be forced to love someone. If you want to write or read that kind of fiction, that is fine, but you’re not writing or reading romance; it is rape fantasy, disguised under the name of “dark romance”.
I didn’t say that readers couldn’t read this fiction. I am not speaking to readers at all. I am speaking to writers, and I am asking them to stop spreading thinking that supports rape culture and misconstruing this fiction as romance. It’s not hard. There are a myriad of ways you can write edgy sex scenes with FULL consent occurring.
Really, if I had wanted to censor the book I was talking about, and indeed all fantasy rapes, why on Earth would I have posted on Facebook. All I would need to do is refer the offending book and the offending scene to Amazon. Let them deal with it. As they say, ‘What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.‘
Truly, I have no need or motivation to censor this material, other than to ask its authors to use a good editor who will tell them how they can write edgy romances that include FULL consent from both or all parties concerned. The fact that these books are sent out to women on a large scale, perpetuating male stereotypes, is damaging to men as well. I am asking the authors to consider the wider ramifications and the role it is likely playing in rape culture. I am asking them to stop the spread of this thinking that ‘no means yes.’
Objections to rape depicted as romance are only made by women who have significant emotional baggage and don’t know what they’re talking about.
Okay, this is the last objection that I could see here. This objection basically comes from a place where they deny all responsibility and deny the evidence for the inappropriateness of romanticizing a rape scene and presenting it as romance.
I clearly admitted that I am a survivor of child rape and molestation, but that is only part of the reason I object to presenting a rape scene as romance. I’m not religious, so they can’t blame religious thinking. I clearly do know what I’m talking about because I’ve just presented this evidence.
If they’re trying to say that I’m trying to control readers’ sexuality, judge that sexuality or shame that sexuality, well, as I said previously, you can have all the rape fantasies that you like, I’m completely fine with that. But writers, don’t publish material like this irresponsibly. Rape culture is rife. Don’t spread this thinking that ‘no means yes’ and then expect no criticism.
This is constructive criticism. It is not personal. It is leveled at no one in particular. It is directed at those who are filling this need without any responsible consideration to the wider ramifications for our society.
I understand that I have talked a lot about Fifty Shades of Grey, and that at their first meeting Christian didn’t rape Ana, and that it more closely resembles BDSM. Although, even some would have a problem with this, as Fifty Shades of Grey does not represent real BDSM. Everyone knows that BDSM requires FULL informed consent.
However, Fifty Shades of Grey is most prevalent in the research and many aspects and themes of the book are similar to those depicted in rape fantasies, such as romanticizing violence during sex (I use this word reluctantly, since rape is distinct from sex–it’s not the same thing). And in fact, that is part of the damage I see being done–the gradual acceptance that rape is sex.
Having said this, Smashwords have come up with a good solution to this problem. All those who love reading their rape fantasies should be able to read what they want, as long as they know what they’re getting.
I received an email from Smashwords, communicating changes to the erotic fiction guidelines. I can say that I thoroughly support Smashword’s decision to make absolutely sure that the reader knows exactly what they’re getting when they buy a rape fantasy. If you’re turned on by a rape depicted as a fantasy, that’s fine. You have that right, but please be honest about what it actually is. It isn’t a romance. It is rape fantasy.
The email asks authors to be honest about what their fiction actually contains. It will go a long way to accurately describing their fiction. Notice that few retailers will distribute non-consensual sexual slavery stories. That confirms what I have been saying; this fiction isn’t respected because it is written for the purposes of titillation. More or less, proper categorization of this material will help all readers get what they really want, and it will inform distributors about what they are actually selling.
As Smashwords has pointed out, mixing of fiction that offends some readers is causing a lack of trust. Appropriate categorization is absolutely necessary. Publishing has been categorizing fiction for a long time; this is just another type of fiction that needs appropriate categorization.
I petition Amazon to adopt similar categorization labeling. It will go a long way to revealing this fiction for what it is. If indeed, the work has some substance and it isn’t written merely for titillation purposes then authors have nothing to worry about, and neither do readers.
For those who are also concerned about rape culture, and I know that they are out there, don’t be afraid and don’t be intimidated into thinking that it is wrong to express concern about a particular type of fiction. This does not constitute censorship or slut-shaming. It is called having an informed opinion and expressing that opinion. Don’t be afraid of their claims that “You’re censoring me,” or that “You’re slut-shaming me,” or my personal favorite, “You don’t know anything.” Lol.
These claims about criticism around their work are weak attempts to silence legitimate criticism. Quite ironic, given their obvious devotion to free speech.
I am asking authors to be responsible for the fiction that they distribute.
If the proponents of rape fantasy want to comment below, you are very welcome. Your opposing views will be published; however, if you choose to degrade yourself by insulting me, your comments will be sent to the trash directly. That is all.
Altenburger, L.E. et al., 2017. Sexist Attitudes Among Emerging Adult Women Readers of Fifty Shades Fiction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), pp.455–464.
Bivona, J.M., Critelli, J.W. & Clark, M.J., 2012. Women’s rape fantasies: An empirical evaluation of the major explanations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(5), pp.1107–1119.
James, E.L., 2011. Fifty Shades of Grey, USA: Vintage Books.
A good point was made to me that sometimes, even with objectionable material like this, that it is better not to restrict its supply. When it is restricted, those who want it will turn to depictions of real non consensual criminal acts. That is a valid point. So, yes, I believe that Smashwords is going down the right road to a categorize this fiction so that those who want it can have it.