Feminism, Fantasy, and Fucking Up

Posted: July 4, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I don’t remember how old I was when I snuck a peek at my first romance novel.  I don’t remember the title, or the name of the author.  I don’t remember much of anything about the plot.

I do, however, remember the details of the first sex scene I ever read.

The hero character was royalty of some sort – they usually were, in the older novels – and the heroine was not.  The hero character was sexually experienced, and the heroine was not.  The hero character wanted to have sex – and the heroine did not.

So he drugged her.

Okay, that’s not quite true.  He thought about drugging her; he set things up so he could slip her something, something that would cause her pain – pain only an orgasm could relieve.  At the last minute, he backed off on it.  But one of his guards slipped it to her anyway, and gosh darnit, he had no choice but to help her out.  She resisted, at first – until he threatened to let his guards in and have them take care of her in his stead.  Then she gave in, and there was sex.

I haven’t thought about that scene in many years.  Recently it came back to me, and I started musing, not just about the scene, but about the woman who wrote it.  (It was most likely a woman; romance authors usually are.)  What was she thinking when she put that down on paper?  Did she think it was hot?  Was she constrained by the “rape is love” trope that was so huge in that era’s romance novels?  Was she proud of it?  Or did she cringe?

If I tilt my head and squint a little, I can almost see a way that scene could be considered empowering.  The heroine doesn’t want to have sex – not because she doesn’t have the desire, but because her society tells her that she’s wrong and dirty if she does.  The drug takes away her consent – as does that threat of gang-rape by the guards – but it also gives her star billing in the sex scene that follows.  The focus is not on the hero and his pleasure; his sole purpose is to help her, which means bring her to orgasm.  Multiple times.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s a fucked up scene.  But I can also see how it was written.

Straightening up, she barely had time to register his arrival when he was on her.  The wall scraped her back as he pushed her against it, his hands in her hair.  She gave a muffled “Oh!” when his lips met hers; his tongue slipped in her mouth, hot and desperate with adrenaline and fear.  When he finally pulled away, she gasped.

When I was younger, a man shoved me up against a wall like that.  I was 18; he was decades older, basically a stranger, someone I sold coffee to once or twice a week.  He’d made my politeness into something other than it was, a delusion that came to its head in the back parking lot of a gas station.  There were complicating factors, things that affected the events that followed, but the upshot is that I testified in court and he went to jail.  Back to jail.  Where, for all I know, he still is.

My husband has tried to grab me like that – one of those passionate, “I have must have you now” embraces.  I don’t melt; I don’t go weak in the knees with lust.  I freeze, like a cornered animal, and wait for him to stop touching me.  That kind of thing is the exact opposite of “hot” for me.  He hasn’t done it in a long time, and I’m grateful.  I hate it.

So why the hell did I write it?

We could come up with a lot of reasons that sound good.  Maybe I was “reclaiming” the experience.  Maybe I thought it fit the characters.  Maybe I set aside my own personal bias against that kind of interaction and acknowledged that it’s something other people like.  All of those could be true.  But I know what I think.

I think I wrote it without thinking about it at all.

When I write, I’m fascinated by the things that are revealed to me as I go along.  If I get into the right groove, I learn things about the characters, their environment, the plot, whatever, that I didn’t know until I started.  It’s interesting, the things that come out when I let myself just go.

I also learn exactly what I’ve internalized, just by virtue of living in the society I live in and having the experiences that I’ve had.

I try to fight these things, on a conscious level; hence why Marion is obsessed with brides wearing white and Maddie pushes back against it, or why she and her mother have that conversation about “fault” when it comes to infidelity.  But sometimes they slip by me, and I don’t even notice until I go back and read my work over again.  Vinnie’s kind of grabby, isn’t he?  Always yanking Maddie out of the way, steering her where he wants her to go.  I noticed that, after I wrote it, and made a conscious decision to have her assert herself when it happens.  But I didn’t realize it was there, while I was writing.  Just like I didn’t realize that I was slut-shaming Maddie’s sister – an addict whose choices are judged equally, regardless of whether she makes them deliberately or while under the influence, when her ability to truly choose anything is pretty compromised.  I noticed that, too, far later than I should have.  It’s out there now, and all I can do is try to work against it moving forward.

I consider myself a feminist.  And it bothers me that I have these issues pop up, that I have these notions and ideas that I so strongly disagree with, just lurking under the surface, waiting to rear their ugly heads.  In the normal course of things, I’d go back and re-write, tweak things so they were erased from the plot, but that’s not how this works.  So instead I try to recognize them, fix the problem as best I can, and thank god that I’m finding these things before the whole book is finished.  Because who wants to be “that” author?  The one whose work encourages women to fall in love with an abuser, whose book says that rape is okay or stalking is normal or a woman’s refusal is only good for as long as it takes for a man to convince her otherwise, however he may do it.  I sure as hell don’t.

People think that writing romance is easy.  I have a whole post coming about why I disagree, from a technical stand-point.  But I’ve also found it difficult on a personal level.  Writing about sex, love and relationships shines a light on the dark shit you’ve swallowed, and confronting that is a hard, scary thing.  I find myself not only grappling with what I learn about myself, but with the responsibility I feel toward the people who are going to read what I write.  I’ve had the enormous pleasure of getting to know many other romance writers over the last two years, and I’ve found that they all feel that sense of responsibility; many of them wonder if they’re writing in a way that doesn’t alienate or harm the women who read their work.

I worry about the not-quite-woman who takes a peek, and finds a heroine being jacked up against a wall for a first kiss.  And my pen feels very, very heavy.

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Comments
  1. Thea Landen says:

    Been there. Beeeeeeen there. Sometimes it’s really hard to reconcile what me-the-feminist wants to read and write with what’s popular and what sells. (Not to mention years and years of conditioning as to what we’re “supposed” to like.) :-\

    I’ve written scenes that have made me think “Is this too rape-y?” Some have even made it to publication. I haven’t heard any complaints yet, so for now, I guess I’ll just roll with it.

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