Do We Really Have to Blame Romance for Abuse in Teen Dating, Too?

A couple days ago, an article appeared at Jezebel about a recent increase in dating abuse amongst teens, which referred to an article in the New York Times about the same subject. Both articles list recent cases in which young women were killed by their former romantic partners, and both describe attempts to counter the controlling and abusive behavior of some young men, which is now aided by modern technology like cell-phones, through school programs. The NYT article quotes a doctor and the manager of a health program, saying that “Adolescents often mistake the excessive attention of boys as an expression of love”, and that “Many teenagers […] see the jealousy and protectiveness as ‘Oh, he loves me so much.’ Girls make excuses for it and don’t realize it’s not about love, but it’s about controlling you as a possession.” Neither article so much as mentions romance fiction.

It is highly illuminating to see, however, that commenters on Jezebel instantly put some of the blame for the situation at romance fiction’s doors, as, in their eyes, a number of popular romances teach young girls that it is okay if a romantic interest is domineering, controlling, abusive, and a general jerk. The very first blogger uses Spencer from the show The Hills as an example of controlling male behavior that is presented as at least half-way acceptable on TV, and the first comment on that introduces Edward Cullen from Twilight (both the book and the film) as another example. Another blogger mentions “Heathcliff (who has bizarrely been turned into a romantic hero)”, and someone further down levels the accusation at a large chunk of romance saying, “My friends and I recently bought a drugstore romance novel to read aloud in the car on a coast-to-coast road trip. We were all creeped out by the male protagonist’s dominating behavior, and the fact that the author seemed to think such activity was sexy. I think too many romance novels glorify ‘yes means no,’ possessive macho-ness as ‘real love.’” The commenters do NOT go on with general romance bashing (don’t worry). Still, their remarks made me think.

In general, I love the romance genre, but I cannot blindly deny that romances have their share of manipulative, domineering, controlling heroes, who, by the end of the book, turn out to be the heroine’s One True Love and the only man likely to make her happy, not to mention being the only man able to give her an orgasm. Some heroes even cross the line to abusive behavior, as in all forced seduction scenes and straight rapes. Novels that spring to mind here are both Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower (*cough* … a guilty pleasure of mine) and last year’s Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell which caused quite a controvery here at AAR . Then there is the theory trotted out periodically, which claims that many romance readers like the forced seduction and the ‘yes means no’ scenario, because it permits the heroine to enjoy something taboo without actively agreeing to it or even seeking it out, reaping the fruits of sin without sinning, so to speak.

Now I haven’t watched The Hills, or read or watched Twilight, and I do not consider Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights to be at all romantic. But, those of you who know The Hills or Twilight, or consider Wuthering Heights a romance, is there something in them that could make them a harmful role model for female (and male) teenagers? Is controlling or abusive behavior romanticized in them? Does romance, a genre beloved by us all, tend too often to whitewash men who insult women, who blackmail them into sex and who try to domineer in every way, by depicting such men, in the guise of alpha heroes (be they homo sapiens or otherworldly creatures), as acceptable or even desirable romantic partners? Do you think teenagers (or older women, come to think of it) can be influenced into believing this simply by reading romance, or watching movie romances? And what does this all say about our beloved romances and about us, the romance readers?

Okay, there are a lot of assumptions here, and generalizations. I do know that not all romance heroes are alpha males/creatures, and that by far not all alphas are controlling or abusive in any way. Still, enough romances come to my mind to make me feel some disquiet, at least momentarily. So, cheer me up, and tell me I’m wrong to worry!

-Rike Horstmann

10 thoughts on “Do We Really Have to Blame Romance for Abuse in Teen Dating, Too?

  1. OK – I am going to start by saying that certain stereotypes are a staple of romance novels. One of those stereotypes is the dominating male. Let’s just say that out loud first and accept it. And let’s add to it that every time a man is particularly dominating (that I have read) they have ended up realizing their behavior was driving away the person they most wanted and have changed, at least in today’s books.

    To tackle Wuthering Heights, which has always been a favorite of mine. Heathcliff is no hero, but he is tortured because of his unrequited love. Let’s face it, people do all sorts of stupid things in the name of love and revenge, and he is no exception. It is romanticized only in the sense that you understand through the novel that he feels (and this seems to be on both sides) that he was torn away from his soulmate. I think we all have to realize that great depth of emotion leads to great good and great bad behavior – or at least what we consider acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Heathcliff is a tragedy and a broken down man and we see that through the eyes of his housekeeper. There is no glamour there.

    However, I do want to address some other points/questions you raise as well. There is nothing wrong with an alpha male, whether human or otherwise. Dominating and domineering are two different things and I think we should be careful how we characterize the behavior. I also think that we need to understand that what is good for one couple is not ideal or even close to good for another. People are different and need different things from their partners.

    Kids these days appear to be influenced to think anything through any medium. They appear to have lost the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, fantasy from reality. I have never once read a fiction book and thought I could go there or do that nor played a game and believed that it was ok to hurt someone because of it or watched a TV show/movie and thought I should emulate their behavior.

    I do not think that we should worry. I think that some of this is just that it is being reported more, which is a good thing but can lead us to think that it is happening more frequently. I also think that where there really is an uptick in this kind of behavior, we need to seriously find it and deal with it at the root and that is the thoughts/beliefs and behaviors of both individuals.

  2. Quoting from the article ““Few adolescents understand what a healthy relationship looks like,” Dr. Miller said’

    I found this sad, and it made me question why they don’t? Does this mean that they don’t have a good example in their family’s relationship? One of the young girls mentioned in the article had a mother who had been in abusive relationship. Or is this just common of this age group, where they discount parental advise, input, and examples.
    I suspect that there are many causal factors in this trend. Media may play a part in it, but only a part. I couldn’t begin to list all the ways that times have changed from when I was a teenager. From television to music videos, to peer pressure,& the atmosphere in the schools, more divorced familes, and less mothers at home during the day.
    I do make it a policy not to buy books now, or at least try that derogate women. And the solution has to be with teaching women & young girls that they are entitled to set up boundaries and deserve respect.

  3. While I don’t think the Edward-Bella dynamic(Twilight series) is a particularly healthy model, I don’t think romance should shoulder the blame for unhealthy relationships. I see some things in romance that make me shudder, but there are also many couples, such as the ones I see in Carla Kelly’s or some of Julia Quinn’s books, that treat each other with respect and value one another.

    I volunteer with kids and one thing I notice is that so many of them seem to be taught so little about how to handle relationships or how to recognize a dangerous situation and get out of it safely. I see that as an education problem (whether they need to learn these lessons in school or at home or both is a topic for another day), not a romance novel problem.

  4. I think it’s silly to single out romances as a cause here. I don’t have any teenaged girls in my life at the moment (my niece is a tween and not even into boys yet) but I wonder, other than the TWILIGHTseries, what other/how many romances are they reading? Now I haven’t read the books or seen the movie, but it seems to me that the appeal of Edward is that he is protective and rather gentlemanly toward the heroine. That he is entirely conscious that he could cause her great harm if he chose to and that he often warns her of this fact in the book. Obviously there are some romances that have heroes that may not be healthy for many women, Shannon McKenna’s men come to mind, and I would hope that no teenaged girl is reading Ms McKenna anyway! I don’t know what teens are reading in the way of romance, but if it’s stuff like TWILIGHT, it seems more fantasy driven than reality.

    Popular culture seems more to blame to me from MTV, to pop tarts like Paris Hilton and the phony baloney Heidi and Spencer (two people more interested in publicity than one another). Rap culture seems particularly to objectify women, putting them into a category of being for sex only. Not to mention the internet and what kids can stumble onto. Good lord about a month ago I was surfing and typed in the url to Jolie Mathis’ website to see if she was ever going to write a second book and it linked me to a rape website – yes I said rape – I didn’t linger long enough to see much more.

    All I can say is, like Leigh, the world is a totally different place from when I grew up and I’m just glad that I’m not a teenager coming up today. Or a parent of one! Scary!

  5. Again, my Twilight nerdom is going to show… Why is Edward getting so much blame? Seriously, while he’s overly protective and Bella overly dependent on his presence in her life, Edward has not once forced himself on Bella. That was Jacob… repeatedly. First he kisses her and doesn’t recognize Bella’s attempts to get him to stop. Then he gloats and says she’ll be thinking of his kisses later? Wtf? After that he plots to get her to kiss him by pulling some major manipulative crap (cough I’ll go kill myself cause you obviously don’t care for me cough). Dude, the boy with the issues in Twilight is Jacob not Edward.

  6. The only thing that crossed the line for me in Twilight was the fact that Edward watched Bella sleep, before she knew he was there. Yes, that is weird, and very stalkerish. But I think adults underestimate teen girls. Just beacuse Edward does that in the books does not mean suddenly 13 year old girls are like, “Oh, it’s okay if someone spies on me, especially if it’s when I’m sleeping, because that’s so cute!”

    While I’m not saying there isn’t worrying behavior in romance novels (or YA novels), I just think that most professionals tend to think teenage girl are more impressionable than they are. Just because we may sigh over a romantic gesture in a book or movie, like Edward’s over-protectiveness, doesn’t mean we react the same way in real life. Most girls, as long as they aren’t completely sheltered, know what’s normal and healthy and what’s not. If there’s an increase in abusive relationships among teens, I would blame it more on a lack of education on the warning signs than blindness caused by romantic books or movies.

  7. Trish, you mentioned the males in Shannon McKenna’s novels, and yes, the McCloud men are not exactly meek and mild! And, no, those novels are not for teenagers! (My niece is a huge fan of Stephenie Meyer and the “Twilight” series, so although I’ve not read the books, I know a little something about them!). For a really good example of domineering male characters who are not particlularly pleasant, read any one of Karen Robards’ early novels. These are mostly historicals, and really good examples of what the term “bodice-ripper” embodies! None of the male protagonists has any redeeming qualities (other than a magnificent body!) and the female protagonists range from simpering to stupid. I wouldn’t recommend any of Robards’ historicals to adults, much less teenagers–the McKenna novels are absolutely understated compared to the likes of “Island Flame”, “Sea Fire”, and “Desire in the Sun”!

  8. So, what makes the boys think excessive behavior is acceptable? Seems to me somebody needs to be looking into and correcting that. The boys certainly aren’t reading romance and learning bad habits there.

  9. Having read Twilight (because my daughter wanted to read it & I always try to read “questionable” books first), I don’t necessarily agree that Edward is a bad role model. He is much more of a gentleman than most contemporary characters and truly no different than any other person who is trying to protect a loved one. Bella jumps in feet first, but Edward tries to do what is best for Bella regardless of what he feels or wants. He won’t “let” her visit a friend, but again more because of the danger to her physically than because of anything else. And once she sneaks out and sees her friend, Edward ends up conceding the point and making arrangements to make sure she is as safe as possible. Although the feelings and lives of the main characters in Twilight are much more intense than I would prefer my daughter to experience at that age, I would rather her have the type of example in this book as opposed to some of the negative examples in a lot of what is considered “classic” literature. Morals, loyalty, and friendship (not to mention an all consuming love) seem much better things to aspire to than the “who-can-get-the-most-guys” mentality that seems to pervade society these days.

  10. True Romance needs genuine love, understanding commitment and loyalty.
    Teen Dating lacks all the above qualities.
    In my opinion Romance Cannot be blamed.

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