[trigger warning for discussion of fictional non-consensual sex]

I think romance novels should come with warning labels:

“HERO RAPES HEROINE.”

Except that apparently romance authors and readers don’t seem to be that good at recognizing rape. It shouldn’t be that difficult – if she doesn’t consent, it’s rape; if consent is coerced, it’s rape – and yet the romance community seems to struggle with it.

The Smart Bitches write in Beyond Heaving Bosoms that rape scenes, once a mainstay in the genre, have “largely disappeared from romance novels published from the 1990s onward,” but that’s not at all true.

For example, To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney (1995). The first sex scene, if we may call it that, between hero and heroine is unambiguously rape. Just, unambiguously. And yet. Here are comments on the book from Dear Author reviewers, which rates it as the #1 Best Romance:

Hands down my favorite romance ever. Blew my mind.

One of my all-time favorites.

Have never read it and doubt I ever will.

Adore this book. Amazing character arcs.

Part of my Romance conversion package. One of the few books with sexual force I adore. I was a late and reluctant reader of this book but it is powerful and moving.

Great book, but so uncomfortable I can’t read it again

Some mixed feelings from the various reviewers, but not one person saying, “Interesting story, but the way the hero rapes the heroine and then they fall in love is just too creepy for me.” Which is my review of the book.

How do I know it’s rape? The heroine never says yes. But even more than that, she never wants it – I mean, she’s SCARED the whole time. She doesn’t fight or scream because she’s frozen with dread. I mean JESUS PEOPLE. If I were teaching a class about how to identify lack of consent, I would ask my students to read that scene.

The idea that he’s, like… what? … HELPING her with this experience? is just gross.

What makes the scene particularly agonizing to read is that the heroine is a survivor of an abusive relationship AND THE HERO KNOWS THIS. Maybe the best/worst part is where the hero urges the heroine to give consent, saying, “Don’t make it rape.” Because it’s the heroine’s job to give consent in order to make it not rape. That’s how it works.

I threw the book against the wall.

I’ll give two more examples, though I think I started with the most egregious example.

Another: Laura Kinsale’s Shadowheart (2004), in which, again, the hero and heroine’s first sex is unambiguously coerced, unwanted by the heroine. Here is another scene I’d show students to illustrate what non-consent looks like.

This heroine does fight. She bites him. But she doesn’t want it, and he doesn’t stop.

The pair goes on to have one of the most original and interesting sex lives of any romance couple – the hero turns out to be a pretty committed submissive pain slut, which is not what you expect when your hero is also a professional assassin, right? – but in order to buy any of that, you have to let go of the fact that the hero raped the heroine.

Untie My Heart by Judith Ivory (2002). The consent in the first sex scene is more ambiguous than in the other two examples – there’s some ambiguous POV thoughts like, “Do I want this?” – but the heroine says no out loud, and she never says yes. Consent wasn’t there. I could make an argument here based on the fact that the hero turns out to be a service top and there’s some psychological things happening etc etc, but really. She wasn’t sure if she wanted it. “Not sure” is the same as “not,” when it comes to sex.

I think maybe we’re supposed to be able to tell she wanted it because she has an orgasm, but you and I know that orgasm can happen during sexual assault; physical response is not consent, it doesn’t mean she likes it and she doesn’t mean she wants it.

(There’s a lot of “My body responded, so I must have liked it” in romance novels. I need that to stop.)

Rapes notwithstanding, these are all three books that I liked, and it distresses and puzzles me that these three writers – gifted writers, all in my Top 5 Romance Authors – couldn’t or didn’t find their way to making the heroine want the sex, or, failing that, call what happens an act of violence.

Part of teaching is the stories we tell. We need – I need – stories that show consent at its best, that clarify the difference between “physical response” with “wanting,” that shows women how to recognize what they want and how to talk about it. And we need books that show how freeze works, so that we create a cultural narrative around it, grant it space and privilege in the story of survival.

That is all. Thank you for listening.

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