Home » Rape-and-Forgive Trope. Inan anonymous publishing executive made this comment about the popularity of romances containing explicit sex in the New York Times Faircloth. This industry report will examine the rise in popularity of the rape and forgive trope beginning in the s, contemporaneous with the second wave of feminism. Its popularity began to wane in the s, and now the sub-genres in which it is most common are BDSM and historical romances.
Women felt liberated by reading about the tabooed topic of sex, and felt even more scandalous and subversive in reading about forced seduction. This very act of liberation—and the enthusiasm of female readers whom it seduced—in some ways enchained women further in the stronghold of patriarchy, but in other ways carved a path to freedom for them. This paper will explore why the rape and forgive trope became popular and how romance novels both reflect and contribute to—due to their widespread popularity—the gender norms in the minds of their majority female readers.
Romance novels that espouse—and successfully sell—the rape and forgive trope normalize violence against women, which has serious psychological effects for women and girls, whose subordination becomes systemic and expected, and men and boys, whose prescribed roles of dominance and hyper-masculinity harm them as well.
But these novels also set in motion a whole dialogue about sex—and, in fact, power—that has today become a progressive debate about consent and equality. The books and the discussions they initiate—online and elsewhere—help readers reconsider what consent means and how our society is shifting the way we view rape. To illustrate these claims, I turn to a variety of scholarly articles, opinion pieces, blogs, philosophy, and law theory. First I will demonstrate how scholars, Romance novels where hero forces heroine, and authors have explained the blossoming demand for explicit sex romances in the s.
Next, I will draw on scholars that show how the novels align with cultural attitudes about rape.
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Then I will look at how readers—mostly through the medium of blogging and online commenting—react to the rape and forgive trope. Finally, I will consider a juxtaposition of romance novels and a specific rape case. To give context, I will highlight the most famous, the most studied, and the most popular rape and forgive novels both historically and contemporarily.
In a blog post on the website Romance Novels for Feminists, writer Jackie Horne examines the changing trend of the popularity of romances with the rape and forgive trope. Category romances—like these, which Harlequin published—have moved away from the trope as third- and fourth-wave feminism has created space for women to confront rape in society and in literature. Accompanying the rise in explicit material was enormous industry growth. People—mostly women—loved reading about sex because they had rarely been able to do so before.
That pleasure, though, entered the romance genre within the confines of patriarchy because it involved rape. Readers look to romance for pleasure and satisfaction, but scholar Susan L. Blake argues that within the confines of patriarchy women cannot be satisfied. The rape and forgive trope, then, seems to represent a tradeoff of autonomy for intimacy.
If rape is so disempowering, why do women enjoy consuming stories about it? Many cultural and historical factors are at play here.
Until the s, women could not talk about, read about, or take ownership of sex. Bestselling romance novelist Sabrina Jeffreys explains that reading romance with explicit sex was, for those first enthusiastic readers, liberating.
It was an act of rebellion not only against the domineering norms in their lives but also against history. Scholars Lyons and Selinger present a nuanced view of the rape fantasy within a patriarchal framework. And the rape and forgive trope appears to be exactly that—fantasy worlds in which women work within the frameworks prescribed for them by relinquishing their agency for intimacy.
But how does one reconcile the common trope of rape with the essence of romance itself—that the hero and heroine are both the le in the story, and that their mutual love arrives, at the end, at a notion of equality rather than subordination?
A central aspect of rape and forgive is that the woman reforms the man. Initially he is inclined to be violent and dominant, but she shows him how to love respectfully, and they land on common ground at the end. Writer Stephanie Wardrop offers another view of why so many female readers enjoy romance novels and more specifically, the rape and forgive trope.
This perspective is encouraging because it shows that exposing rape spawns conversations about how to turn disempowering histories into empowering futures. She writes. Romance novels, to MacKinnon, would be both reflections of and contributors to social norms concerning gender roles and equality. Women have always been measured according to a male standard. Women, she argues, should define themselves. Furthermore, MacKinnon censures the powerful effects that gender policing has on not only women but also men.
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Lyons and Selinger also illustrate this point in one of the biggest hits of the seventies. Thus, the rape and forgive trope can both corner women as victims and corner men as perennial aggressors. For some readers and writers, rape fantasies are anything but cornering; in fact, they are emboldening. Mostly because I regard sex as something primal, aggressive, and a little ugly, and watching two SAG-card-carrying actors groan, grab, and hump each other in a semi-transgressive manner is sexy to me.
In early s romance novels, no sometimes meant yes and a rapist could figure as a hero. that was about to change
Watching an aggressive male defile a supine female reminds me I essentially have the erotic psyche of a Victorian. In my view, these books did not change power structures; they enforced them. On the other hand, rape was out of bounds in public discourse and literature.
Sex, especially explicit sex, was taboo. They knew the power dynamic would continue, so at least if they said they enjoyed being victims they would seem less like victims. In a strange sense, the fact of being forbidden made these books sexy and their readers subversive.
But this sexy, and perhaps to some even liberating, narrative has the same flaws in reasoning as the original desire for reading taboo romance. The heroine appears powerful because she wants to be raped. But her very act of power—asking a man to rape her—is her complete surrender to male dominance.
Her expression of agency and leadership is to submit herself to her rapist. Though the subject of this report is not BDSM or forced seduction romance, that subgenre obviously draws some connections to the rape and forgive trope. It is almost as though BDSM novels are so clearly romanticized that they have less impact on reality.
For more on that subgenre, see the industry report by Grace Li linked on this blog. The narrative described above is neither surprising nor original; in fact, these kinds of violent desires show up in other aspects of society.
And in many ways, pornography is just an extension of the everyday enforcement of patriarchy. Pornography mirrors rape fantasies of romance novels. Part of the appeal of reading about sex—and enjoying sex personally—for women beginning in the s was challenging these gender roles. Women began to enjoy—or admit that they enjoyed—an act defined and controlled by men.
Even more, in these rape and forgive stories, they could surrender to coercive sex, miraculously begin to enjoy it, reform the man, and then pursue a healthy relationship of mutual respect.
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But however liberatingly women did perceive these romances about rape, there is a sense in which the effects of these narratives just cornered them further. Given that romance readers tend to be middle-class American women, studying the romance novel in the vacuum of academia may seem rather unsuitable.
In order to include the voices of the readers actually purchasing these books, rather than the academics debating their merits, I turned to the blogging world. Another lamented about how romance is unrealistic about relationships and places too much onus on the woman to fix things:.
Another reader also wanted to draw the line on what should be forgivable behaviour. Okay, he apologised for pushing her too far, and so what? They may be gruff, rude, even crude — but not violent. Her definition of rape is basically violent sex, while it is understood by most now to be nonconsensual—not necessarily violent—activity. Other readers thought rape was more defined by power.
The balance of power in relationships surfaces as a recurring element that either draws readers in or pushes them away. The onus is on the heroine to reform her awful hero. In general, on these blogging sites, when one commenter begins to deride the rape and forgive trope, many more in.
Reading the comments is like watching a wave roll through—if one person calls out the misogyny in the trope, a host of others follow suit. It is almost as if many readers want to express their discomfort or frustration with the trope, but they do no want to be alone in doing so. Another facet of this wave of censorious comments is that perhaps readers feel as though they have to agree. Excerpts from the chain of comments include:.
Well said. I would have shanked them had I been the heroine. The worst part? The heroine falls in love with them. Savage Surrender by Natasha Peters is another book where the hero needed a brain overhaul and castration. In addition, many commenters made references to what MacKinnon would call policing the gender line.
The archetypes are firmly rooted in sexuality, and the consequence of this is that sexual violence is used in some books to reinforce these roles. Male values are independence and power, but many readers want to see heroines be strong and autonomous. One commented, annoyed, that she hated. In effect, the heroine has to tame or reform the hero, but she cannot take credit for it, or complain about how abusive and disrespectful he was before.
Another reader thought the rape and forgive trope conveyed the message that. This idea is intriguing because it confirms the notion that rape is far more about power than it is about sex. The heroine has to be violated—overpowered—in order to overcome her aggressor and reach some equilibrium in which they reach a happy ending.
In terms of readers feeling comfortable reading about the rape and forgive trope, many felt safe within the s and few expressed qualms about the triggering nature of the material. Others were fed up that women could still not win—in the sense of being equal—in romances involving rape.